What is the American Dream?

The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance. 

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American Dream

The Origins of the American Dream

The term was coined by writer and historian James Truslow Adams in his best-selling 1931 book "Epic of America." He described it as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." He went on to explain, "It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

The idea of the American Dream has much deeper roots. Its tenets can be found in the Declaration of Independence, which states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In a society based on these principles, an individual can live life to its fullest as he or she defines it. America also grew mostly as a nation of immigrants who created a nation where becoming an American—and passing that citizenship to your children—didn't require being the child of an American. 

Benefits of Achieving the Dream

Achieving the American Dream requires political and economic freedom, as well as rules of law and private property rights. Without them, individuals cannot make the choices that will permit them to attain success, nor can they have confidence that their achievements will not be taken away from them through arbitrary force. The American Dream promises freedom and equality. It offers the freedom to make both the large and small decisions that affect one’s life; the freedom to aspire to bigger and better things and the possibility of achieving them; the freedom to accumulate wealth; the opportunity to lead a dignified life; and the freedom to live in accordance with one’s values, even if those values are not widely held or accepted.

The American Dream also offers the promise that the circumstances of someone's birth—including whether they were born American citizens or immigrants—do not completely determine their future. The books of post-Civil War writer Horatio Alger, in which impoverished but hardworking teenage boys rise to success through pluck, determination, and good fortune, came to personify realizing the Dream.

Ways People Can Realize the Dream

Today, home ownership is frequently cited as an example of attaining the American Dream. It is a symbol of financial success and independence, and it means the ability to control one’s own dwelling place instead of being subject to the whims of a landlord. Owning a business and being one’s own boss also represent American Dream fulfillment. In addition, access to education and healthcare have been cited as elements of the Dream.

In "Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945," sociologist Emily S. Rosenberg identifies five components of the American Dream that have shown up in countries around the world. These include the belief that other nations should replicate America's development; faith in a free market economy; support for free trade agreements and foreign direct investment; promotion of a free flow of information and culture; and acceptance of government protection of private enterprise.

The American Dream was aided by a number of factors that gave the United States a competitive advantage over other countries. For starters, it is relatively isolated geographically, compared to many other countries, and enjoys a temperate climate. It has a culturally diverse population that businesses use to foster innovation in a global landscape. Abundant natural resources—including oil, arable land, and long coastlines—generate food and income for the country and its residents.

Headwinds and the Dream

Terming it a "dream" also carries with it the notion that these ideals aren't necessarily what has played out in the lives of many actual Americans and those who hope to become Americans. The criticism that reality falls short of the American Dream is at least as old as the idea itself. The spread of settlers into Native American lands, slavery, the limitation of the vote (originally) to white male landowners, and a long list of other injustices and challenges have undermined the realization of the Dream for many who live in the United States.

As income inequality has increased substantially since the 1970s, the American Dream has begun to seem less attainable for those who aren't already affluent or born into affluence. According to U.S. Census family income data, real family income began to grow much more among the top income group than among other segments of American society. For example, the Federal Reserve's 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances shows that the top 10% of the income distribution earned roughly a quarter of all income and held more than three-quarters of all wealth.

These realities, however, do not diminish the luster of the American Dream as an ideal and a beacon to all nations. 

Key Takeways

  • The term was coined in a best-seller in 1931, "Epic of America." 
  • James Truslow Adams described it as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."
  • The American Dream was aided by a number of factors that gave the United States a competitive advantage over other countries.
  • Homeownership and education are often seen as paths to achieving the American Dream.