American Dream… American Delusion?

Reading Robert Putnam’s excellent article yesterday about widening inequality made me return to look at a growing body of material about the relation of family income inequality and school achievement for children and adolescents.

Certainly many of us have noticed the outmigration of wealthier families in some metropolitan areas and in other cities the concentration of gentrification in particular neighborhoods, along with the accompanying displacement of poor families and concentration of poverty in other neighborhoods.  The Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has published striking numbers that document these trends, numbers that shock even though we might have noticed the patterns informally.  Here are links to two of Reardon’s research studies;  I urge you to check out at least their executive summaries:

Reardon  shared some of his conclusions in the New York Times earlier this spring in a shorter piece, No Rich Child Left Behind, to which UCLA professor, Mike Rose, who has been writing about educational inequality for a long time responds.

Five years ago sociologist Heather Beth Johnson published a fascinating book, The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, describing a  study of how Americans explain to themselves our society’s growing inequality .  Not surprisingly, Johnson discovered that a mass of people frame their thinking with the narrative of the American Dream, a story that credits inequality to the power of the individual. This is the idea that we live in a meritocracy where we all begin life with the power to succeed if we work hard; where we all play by one set of rules and if we are strategic and patient, we can all win; where we rise or fall pretty much on our own.

Here is a transcript of one of the interviews Johnson reports:  “Interviewer: ‘Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?’  Responder: ‘Yeah.’  Interviewer: ‘So you think there are certain  groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?’  Responder: ‘Sure. Definitely.’  Interviewer: ‘Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?’  Responder: ‘That’s a very good definition.’  Interviewer: ‘Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?’  Responder: ‘Yes. Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.'”

In interview after interview participants tightly hold both beliefs: some people have it much harder in America, and everyone has an equal chance.  Johnson attributes the contradiction to the blindness of privilege, the invisibility of the influence of intergenerational gifts—some even quite small but significant because they arrive at key times—by which those with some money can assist their children and grandchildren: help with a car payment, assistance with doctor bills, family vacations, college tuition, and even assistance with the down payment on a house.  Parents and grandparents with fewer assets and lower monthly income are unable to provide these boosts.  Johnson explains: because speaking about money is taboo, “the intergenerational transmission of it and the purposeful use of it are normally hidden from public view.”

Research like Reardon’s demonstrates that despite the strength of the story of the American Dream in our collective imagination, this myth does not describe today’s America, where child poverty is 22 percent, highest in the developed world;  where seven million of those 16 million poor children are trapped in extreme poverty with annual family income under $10,000; where social mobility has stalled, residential segregation increased, and inequality skyrocketed.

2 thoughts on “American Dream… American Delusion?

  1. Hi Jan, This info is so powerful and so important and so neglected by the mainstream media. Why? Just to let you know, as this comes in to my email, the text is clear but the places where you have links the text is yellow and unreadable. You’ll get it right! Thanks once again, Sheila


  2. Pingback: Rust Belt Industry May Decline, but Rev. John Thomas Rejects Inevitability of Widening Inequality | janresseger

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