Does This Dream Really Deliver?
The American Dream: The Double-Edged Myth
Part 1 (click here for Part Two)
Is the U.S. economy a "level playing field", full of fairness? Of course not. Yet people continue to run into the brick wall of economic injustice without challenging it, and without questioning the mythos that brings them so little happiness.
In this first installment of a two-part article, Natalie Smith and Alex J. Noury introduce us to the dirty realities that co-exist with the brightly polished American Dream.
by Natalie Smith and Alex J. Noury“Ya gotta believe in what you're doing.”
“Stand up for yourself.”
“You gotta think of yourself as a winner, and you will be.”
These are the sermons of one of the most popular men in contemporary pop culture, Donald Trump. His reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” became an entertainment phenomenon, repackaging and reselling the increasingly elusive American Dream. It is perhaps no coincidence that “The Apprentice” is wildly popular at this point in American history. Never before has the divide between the richest and the poorest been so large. Never before have corporate corruption and corporate welfare been so flagrant. Therefore, we watched with rapt attention and desperation the unfolding of the American Dream on so-called reality TV, distracting ourselves from the fact that the Dream's rewards are nowadays more fiction than fact.
The American Dream is possibly the strongest cultural force driving the U.S. worker. It inspires us to work long hours and borrow large sums of money. This dream translates into economic self-sufficiency, manifested through successful entrepreneurship and homeownership. But is it truly "blind"? Are all Americans in an equal position to attain this dream, provided that one has enough ambition and work ethic?
According to the American Dream, increased productivity will lead to higher wages, enhanced wealth, and ultimately, to economic self-sufficiency. Pious sacrifice will reap earthly rewards. As the American working class experience proves however, this is not the reality. Not only does hard work not necessarily translate into economic success, but opportunity is not equally shared. This stark reality taints the promise of freedom and justice that American citizens claim as cornerstones of their nation.
For the vast majority of the U.S. population, the American Dream is not readily available to them. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 31.5% of families in this country make a total income of below $35,000. In most states, this amount of money barely affords rent and food for a family, let alone car payments, health insurance, education costs or worse, treatment for medical problems.
The U.S. is one of the world's richest industrialized nations, but the average per capita income is only $21,857. Where is all the wealth to which the American people supposedly have fair and equitable access? It is concentrated at the top. We live in a society in which 1% of the American population owns 60% of stock and 40% of total wealth. The top 10% of Americans owns over 80% of all real estate. Between 1977 and 1999, the top one-fifth of American households enjoyed an increase in income of 43%. The bottom fifth of American households lost income at a rate of 9 %. (For more income and census figures and further references, see http://www.endgame.org/primer-wealth.html). Is this the egalitarian vista of productive, successful, middling yeomen farmers that Jefferson envisioned two centuries ago?
The Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy published a report (detailed in the Progress Report: http://www.progress.org/archive/gap01.htm) that highlights the gross inequities between executive and worker pay: “Executive Excess 2001: Layoffs, Tax Rebates and the Gender Gap.” As revealed in the report, executive pay rose by 571% between 1990 and 2000. During the same period, workers' pay rose only 37%. The Progress Report article notes, “if the minimum wage, which stood at $3.80 an hour in 1990, had grown at the same rate as CEO pay over the decade, it would now be $25.50 an hour, rather than the current $5.15 an hour.”
Why such a disparity between the working and upper classes? Are we not working hard enough? The Washington Post notes in an article on December 17, 2003 (“More Reports Signal Expanding Economy; Factory Output Up; Prices Drop”) that U.S. business productivity grew by 9.4% in the third quarter of that year, the highest increase since 1983. Workers are working harder, but this has not translated to higher wages. In Progress and Poverty (1879), Henry George asks, “Why, in spite of increase in productive power, do wages tend to a minimum that will give but a bare living?” Perhaps we should ask corporate executives, whose astronomically high salaries are made possible by the workers' increasing productivity.
Unfortunately, corporate executives are unlikely to be challenged by that question. In fact, the average American citizen more commonly poses the question to himself. The American Dream, rooted in a Protestant work ethic and assumptions of a level playing field, perpetuates a cultural version of “blame the victim.” If success is portrayed as an individual enterprise, then it follows logically that failure is an individual responsibility.
There is an under-explored idea in cultural anthropology that argues that psychological trauma results from the gap between cultural expectations (as set forth in myth and ideology) and material reality. As the economic structure increasingly polarizes the classes, a surprising number of Americans turn inward, placing blame on their perceived deficiencies in spirituality and character. Such internal blame is manifested in movements such as the Promise Keepers and the Million Man March. It is interesting to note that famous men's movements tend to focus on accepting internal responsibility for perceived failures. Women's movements, such as the recent March to Save Women's Lives, rightfully lash out at the socio-economic structure that denies universal health care, fair education and decent living wages.
Alex Noury received his B.A. in Anthropology from Hartwick College, where he researched the origins of horse transportation, and his M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Florida, where he focused on economic development, globalization, and resistance movements in Latin America. He is currently a research assistant at the National Institute of Health.
Natalie Smith received her B.A. in History at Rollins College, where she completed historical and anthropological research on Florida farmers, and she obtained her M.A. in Anthropology at the University of Florida. She has also studied at the University of Seville in Spain, taught for a year in Japan, served a year in Americorps and is active in feminist causes. Currently, she is a writer and editor in Gainesville, Florida.
Part Two of this article is available here.
Copyright 2004 by Alex Noury. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission of Alex Noury.
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