The American Dream: A Case for Optimism

What is the essence of the American Dream? A house, two cars, and 2.3 children that will grow up to live a better, more fulfilling live than you did? This dream seems beyond the grasp for many Americans in the wake of the Great Recession and a global economy that appears to help stratify the haves and the have-nots.

Indeed, Brookings researchers Richard V. Reeves and Joanna Venator wrote on Saturday that, “the American Dream has been doing poorly for quite some time.” They make this conclusion in light of another great study from Harvard’s Raj Chetty and team. They found social mobility in the United States has remained about the same over the last 30 years. When you consider rising income inequity, and the amount of funding put towards the “War on Poverty”, etc., that result is, as Reeves and Venator believe, quite sobering. Tellingly, the mobility rates varied greatly based on where you live. While Salt Lake City and San Jose had rates of social mobility about the same as Denmark, cities like Atlanta and Milwaukee had social mobility rates below any developed country where the data was available.

Most of us want to live in a country that provides equality of opportunity, that means it doesn’t matter where you were born or to whom you were born. If you work hard, you should be able to get ahead. How some cities are doing better jobs of that, while others aren’t, is a great question, and should be a great focus for our society. Intergenerational poverty remains a huge challenge.

But perhaps we can find inspiration if we broaden our view. In their annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates argue that worldwide, lives are getting much better. They make a compelling case that progress is and can be made towards helping the poor in countries around the world. Over the course of his lifetime, Bill Gates points out, “Billions of people will have been lifted out of extreme poverty.” This is happening in places like Africa, once thought to be caught in a perpetual cycle of poverty. Many countries once thought of as “poor” are not poor any longer. The difference in the quality of people’s lives is most vivid in the portraits he provides of cities. As Gates writes, Mexico City is “mind-glowingly” different than it was even in 1987: “There are high-rise buildings, new roads, and modern bridges. There are still slums and pockets of poverty, but…most people who live [there] are middle-class. What a miracle.”

Undoubtedly, many factors contribute to this growth, and there is still a long way to go. Yet, all across the world, people are achieving a better quality of life than their forebearers. Can we Americans help each other recapture the American Dream of a better life? I am optimistic we can.

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