The American Dream Needs A Wealth Agenda
The American dream is imperiled. Nearly half of Americans who report having once believed that Americans who work hard will get ahead are no longer convinced that is the case. Many doubt that their children’s generation will be better off financially than theirs. Even more alarming, new research suggests that such fears are well-founded. As Americans take stock of their chances to “make it” and find that their realities lag behind their aspirations, the dream withers. Some scholars have even linked recent declines in life expectancy of middle- aged Whites to the hollowing of the American dream, attributing rising mortality rates to “deaths of despair.” Dimming prospects for climbing the economic ladder may threaten the survival of the American experiment. If the verdict was already rendered and the American dream beyond any possible repair, this would be a very different book. Certainly, there are no guarantees that narratives, even broadly shared, endure forever. However, we believe that the American dream is not only salvageable but eminently worth saving. It still holds considerable sway over personal ambitions and collective aspirations in the United States and around the world. In 1931, Adams credited the dream with having “lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores”; today, immigrants and their descendants are the most optimistic about the central premise of the dream: that all who work hard have a fair chance to succeed. Admittedly, the idea that working hard should help people get ahead is not peculiarly “American.” What makes the American Dream uniquely ours is (a) the contention that institutions should aim to create conditions that roughly equalize opportunity and (b) the confidence born of generations’ experiences seeing the dream materialize, albeit unequally. We see the American dream as worth a fight because it defines not only how Americans see themselves and their possible tomorrows but also how they see their nation and the opportunities they believe that nation should extend.
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