Americans are waking up to the fact that there is no American dream
Published: Nov 28, 2023 08:53 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Most Americans now think there is no such thing as the American dream, according to a new survey which also found that half of those questioned feel that life in the US is worse now than it was half a century ago.

An increasing number of people living in the US are reaching that conclusion, according to a survey commissioned by and published in a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report last week. Most Americans now believe that the fabled American dream is not for them.

Dogged by crippling inflation and limited incomes and surrounded by seemingly insurmountable social problems such as rampant gun crime and runaway drug abuse, only 36 percent of voters felt they could still realize the American dream. The figure is a spectacular new low in what has been a steady decline. A similar poll 11 years ago found 53 percent still believed in the American dream, while that dropped to 48 percent in 2016. This figure is the same for both Democrats and Republicans.  

The detail within the survey betrayed the roots of the problem, exposing a society that is becoming increasingly divided and unequal. The only thing that appeared to unite those polled was their increasing dissatisfaction: a shocking 50 percent of respondents said that life in America is worse than it was half a century ago. Half also said that far from America being a land of opportunity, they believe its economic and political systems are rigged against them, impeding their ability to change their prospects or their leaders.

It is hardly surprising that so many feel so disaffected by the rampant capitalism that takes priority over so much more. Indeed, perhaps the very essence of what people see as achieving the American dream is rooted in the acquisition of wealth and the assumption that money equals fulfillment. 

If it ever did exist, the American dream existed only in the minds of those citizens who aspired to a better life for themselves and their families, and who were convinced the society in which they lived provided the necessary opportunities for self-advancement. The theory was that even those who came from a disadvantaged or impoverished background could still achieve anything by working hard and being a good American.

You could construct an argument supporting this, pointing to people of humble origins who have risen to some of the highest positions of power, influence and wealth in the land. But the US is not unique in that respect, as many other countries could cite similar examples. The individual's success is the result of their character and circumstances, and also luck, not just an effect of the societal structure. 

In the US, however, this notion that anything is possible for anybody is stronger because it helps to underpin the myth of American exceptionalism, which exerts a powerful influence over the psyche of many raised in the US. It works rather like the astonishing proportion of people in the UK will have a distorted, rose-tinted view of the rapacious colonialism which was the lifeblood of the British Empire, even now giving them an inflated sense of their country's position in the world.

Imagine how it feels, after believing this myth your whole life, then the truth suddenly dawns on you: that the American dream is just that - a dream. 

The article in the WSJ, considered to be one of the foremost newspapers of record in the US, contains no detailed analysis or explanation for the trend of dispiritedness, but there are telling comments from individuals that provide clues.

One middle-class man said that despite a comfortable lifestyle, "money was tight" and "I feel we are all a couple of paychecks away from being on the street." Another said things were "objectively worse" than 50 years ago. An African-American woman said: "…the odds are always against black people." Among all people questioned, 18 percent said they felt there was no such thing as the American dream.

Economic precariousness was one reason cited for their unhappiness. A glance at the US Census Bureau's records, published in September, confirms this with an official US poverty rate in 2022 of 11.5 percent, and the rate for children - 12.5 percent - had doubled within a year. It means 37.9 million Americans, living in the "richest" country on the planet, are desperately poor. Another 28.9 million people depend on social security to keep them out of poverty. Median household incomes fell by 2.3 percent, and an estimated 25.9 million people had no health insurance.

There are also systemic problems within the US acting as a barrier between people and the "dream." Gun violence - from mass killings to accidents to suicides - has cost 38,851 lives so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and there are almost two mass shootings (incidents involving at least four deaths) every day. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports more than 100,000 Americans die each year, mostly from Fentanyl.

Poverty, drugs, gun violence and political and economic systems rigged against ordinary people are just a few of the major problems with which Washington is struggling. No wonder most people feel overwhelmed.

The author is an independent researcher and analyst with an interest in China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn