The Myth of the American Dream

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Across history, America has been renowned as the land of opportunity. It has attracted countless immigrants who sought the freedom and equality promised by our government. The essence of this reputation is captured in the American Dream, which asserts that success can be attained through one’s own endeavors alone. Though interpretations of success may vary, the American Dream defines it as the capacity to become a “self-made individual” and attain a satisfactory standard of living.

Despite being perceived as impartial to race, sex, or socio-economic status and appearing idyllic at first glance, the American Dream is contradicted by multiple instances and data regarding the lower classes. These individuals consistently face the harsh reality that opportunity and equality are merely empty promises, therefore disproving the fundamental principle of this dream. The countless accounts of people failing to achieve the American Dream far exceed the limited number of successful stories that uphold this illusion. However, these few tales of triumph ensure that both Americans and the rest of the world continue to have faith in the deceptive possibilities presented by this dream.

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Despite constant propaganda promoting the idea that the American Dream is achievable for everyone, the lower class encounters numerous obstacles that hinder their ability to attain the myth of the “self-made man” in America. Over time, Americans have been consistently influenced to believe in the possibility of achieving the American Dream through propaganda. A frequently mentioned case is Benjamin Franklin, an individual who was self-educated and triumphed over humble origins to become a renowned scientist, philosopher, and statesman (Money 295).

Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the United States, is often cited as an example refuting the idea that the American Dream is only for the upper classes. Another contemporary figure, Colin Powell, also disproves this notion by rising from impoverished streets in the Bronx to become a highly esteemed military officer (Blue 306). These examples are commonly used to counter the belief that achieving the American Dream may be impossible for those in lower social classes. Additionally, individuals who question or challenge the American Dream are frequently labeled as unpatriotic and quickly silenced.

Despite a few success stories and accusations, the undeniable reality remains that the American Dream is not equally accessible to everyone. Education is widely recognized as the gateway to success, but unequal education in America means that children are afforded varying opportunities to pursue the American Dream. Jonathan Kozol, in his book Savage Inequalities, vividly portrays lower-class schools where basic necessities such as functioning toilets are lacking, books are incomplete, and sometimes teachers are simply occupied at their desks.

Mantsios (329) suggests that this school lacks supervision, leading to an inadequate learning atmosphere compared to upper-class schools. Unlike these schools, which offer clean and motivating environments and advanced curricula, the lack of supervision affects the quality of education in this school. Richard de Lone conducted a study at the Carnegie Council on Children in the 1970s, revealing a clear link between social class and standardized test scores like the SAT.

College Board surveys have confirmed that after fifteen years of the initial study, there is still a connection between a student’s social status and their academic performance. Students from higher social classes tend to achieve better grades. However, it is worth mentioning that some lower-class students excel academically in high school, defying these statistics. Nevertheless, additional research indicates that these lower-class students still have a significantly lower probability of pursuing a postgraduate degree compared to upper-class students.

Despite the belief that hard work is the key to achieving the American dream, it is not solely responsible for poor academic performance among lower-class students. The problem lies in the fact that these students are offered a less rigorous and advanced curriculum compared to their higher-class counterparts, even if they perform well within their own schools. As a result, they lack the necessary preparation for succeeding in college. Regrettably, this inadequate education can be directly attributed to insufficient government funding.

Despite their hard work, lower-class students are still hindered by their socio-economic status. Children of poverty-stricken parents do not receive the same level of attention and motivation as their higher-class counterparts, preventing them from developing the belief that they can achieve the American dream (Mantsios 328). According to Mantsios (328), there are 40 million Americans living in poverty, and this low standard of living has undeniable mental and physical impacts on them. These individuals work tirelessly for meager wages, only to come home to an environment that does not reflect the effort they have put in.

Within this setting, only a small number of individuals possess the optimistic mindset to effectively guide and support children. Furthermore, numerous households lack the necessary financial means to afford adequate nutrition, shelter, and healthcare, consequently leading to markedly different health conditions compared to the affluent class. As cited by Mantsios (328), lower-class status is associated with increased rates of infant mortality, eye and ear ailments, arthritis, physical disabilities, diabetes, malnutrition, respiratory illnesses, mental disorders, and heart conditions.

Therefore, despite a parent’s positive outlook to motivate their child’s success, many do not have the time or energy to provide the necessary attention due to the priority of survival. Even Ken Hamblin, a supporter of the American Dream, emphasized the significance of parental involvement, stating, “I have never believed…that I could never get the fullest measure of opportunity in America” (Hamblin 381). The role of parental motivation is crucial in raising a confident and inspired child to achieve their American Dream.

Many children cannot overcome the remaining obstacles to success without access to it. Despite the pride many Americans have in the free-trade economic structure, capitalist policies actually widen the gap between the rich and poor, making it harder for the lower-class to achieve their American Dream. The American Dream was built by small business owners and farmers who had the opportunity to become self-made men, as highlighted by Stephen Cruz in his interview with Studs Terkel, “It’s becoming so massive.”

The small-business venture no longer exists as it has become too large to have any influence (339). As the capitalist economic structure favors private ownership and growth while opposing government intervention, companies have grown to the extent of resembling monopolies. Consequently, small businesses and farmers are unable to compete with larger stores or corporate farms, which easily acquire or drive them out of business. Moreover, capitalism enforces class dominance, further exerting an oppressive force that individuals cannot overcome.

According to Mantsios (331), the class structure in the United States is determined by its capitalist economic system. Despite America’s claim of being a classless society, a class system is inevitable due to its free-trade economy. This is because capitalism’s private and individualistic characteristics create a clear divide between those who possess wealth and those who do not. Class distinction not only causes feelings of inferiority for lower-class individuals, but also leads to financial inadequacy. According to Mantsios, over 66 percent of consumers earning $100,000 or more annually have inherited assets (331).

Children from higher social classes have an inherent advantage as they are assured of receiving substantial amounts of money in their lifetime. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that money is essential for generating further wealth within a capitalist system. Consequently, inheritance laws exacerbate the gap between the affluent and the impoverished, perpetuating a cycle of poverty among those in lower social classes. Even though there are many instances disproving the American Dream’s validity, there remain proponents who believe that anyone can achieve it through diligent effort.

Collin Powell’s achievement of the American dream was made possible through a combination of hard work and strong support from his family. According to Powell, there is no secret to his success, as he simply works hard and puts in long hours (Blue 306). His parents played a vital role in motivating him and fostering his desire for a better life. They emphasized the importance of education as the key to success and instilled in their children the belief that hard work leads to success (Blue 307). As a result, Powell’s determination was not only fueled by his own efforts but also by the unwavering motivation instilled in him by his parents.

Regrettably, some children are never taught the significance of exerting effort, which impedes their ability to demonstrate it. Nonetheless, Ken Hamblin, an African American, contends that achieving the American dream relies on virtues and qualities acquired through hard work or experience rather than one’s race or gender. However, queries arise regarding who determines these criteria and how they should be prioritized. Each individual’s perception of the importance of merit will vary if we are evaluated solely based on them. Maybe Hamblin was fortunate enough to find himself in advantageous circumstances where those in authority appreciated his merits while avoiding places that did not. Proponents also assert that even if the American Dream is not entirely valid, it still inspires lower classes to persevere.

Although the American Dream offers motivation, it is overshadowed by numerous obstacles that lead to disappointment and feelings of inadequacy. Despite promising equal opportunity for success, the American Dream ultimately fails to deliver. This ideal, deeply ingrained in our culture, significantly impacts our perception of others and success. The pervasive belief that hard work alone leads to success compels Americans to proudly display expensive possessions as a symbol of diligence. Conversely, those without extravagant belongings are often unfairly judged as lazy or incompetent.

Despite the teachings of the American Dream, the reality often diverges. It cannot be denied that an American who toils relentlessly for minimum wage exerts more effort than someone who relies on inherited wealth and does not work. Nevertheless, the illusion of the American Dream has fostered the belief that every American possesses an equal opportunity to thrive. This belief conceals the disparities that hinder individuals in lower socioeconomic classes from realizing their aspirations.

Therefore, the American Dream will only perpetuate inequality, as lower-class Americans are left in a constant state of longing and unfulfilled dreams while witnessing the privileged class thrive (Money 296). Rather than providing hope, the American Dream binds individuals to their social class of birth. Unless proactive measures are implemented, this cycle of wealth consolidation will persist across generations, further enriching the affluent and deepening the poverty of the less fortunate.

This relentless pattern of inequality in America is fueled by a deceptive belief that not only gives false hope but also obscures the true extent of disparities. It may seem impossible to dismantle this myth, but with determination and effort, anything is achievable. Many sources, such as Blue and Naden’s “From Colin Powell: Straight to the Top,” Terkel’s “Stephen Cruz,” Dalton’s “Horatio Alger,” Hamblin’s “The Black Avenger,” Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities,” Mantsios’ “Class in America: Myths and Realities,” and the article “Money and Success,” all contribute to our understanding of this perpetuating myth.

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The Myth of the American Dream. (2018, Jan 29). Retrieved from

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