America historically owns the reputation of being the land of opportunity, and for generations immigrants have fled to the United States to experience the freedom and equality our government lays claim to. At the root of this reputation is the American Dream, the belief that with hard work anyone can succeed based solely on his or her merits. While definitions of success vary, the American Dream defines it as the ability to become a “self-made man,” thereby rising to a more-than-comfortable state of living.
The American Dream is believed to be blind to race, sex, or socio-economic status and at a first glance, seems to be almost Utopian. Conversely, repeated examples and statistics of the lower-classes, those continually facing the harsh reality that opportunity and equality are empty promises, only prove the opposite. The countless stories of failure to reach the American Dream significantly override the few success stories that keep the myth alive. However, these few success stories keep Americans, as well as the rest of the world, believing in the false opportunities the American Dream puts forth.
Although the American public is force-fed propaganda to believe the American Dream is attainable to everyone, numerous obstacles prevent the lower class in America from reaching the “self-made man” myth. For generations, Americans have been led to believe that the American Dream is realistic through propaganda. For example, advocates readily use the example of Benjamin Franklin, a self-educated man who “rose from modest origins to become a renowned scientist, philosopher, and statesman,” as a prime example of the validity of the American Dream (Money 295).
Who better to use as an example than one of the forefathers of a country that prides itself on supposed equal opportunity? In addition to Franklin, advocates use the present-day example of Colin Powell, an African-American who can also be considered a “self-made man,” since he went from the ghetto streets of the Bronx to become the highest ranking military officer (Blue 306). These examples and others are quickly used to extinguish the thought that perhaps the American Dream can only be a myth to the lower classes. In the same vein, those who attempt to disprove the American Dream are considered un-American, and so are quickly silenced.
However, these few success stories and accusations cannot change the truth, the American Dream is not equally attainable to all. Education is known to be the key to success, but due to unequal education in America, children are given dissimilar opportunities to achieve the American Dream. In his book, Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol illustrates lower-class schools: “four of the six toilets do not work…some of the books are missing the first hundred pages…sometimes there’s a teacher present doing something at his desk.
Sometimes there’s no adult in the room” (33-37). The learning atmosphere at this school cannot be compared to those of an upper-class school that provides not only clean and motivating learning environments, but a challenging and technically advanced curriculum as well. A study conducted by Richard de Lone of the Carnegie Council on Children in the 1970’s revealed the effects of different learning conditions when he found a direct relationship between social class and scores on standardized tests such as the SAT (Mantsios 329).
Fifteen years after the original study, College Board surveys expose statistics that continue to prove, “the higher the student’s social status, the higher the probability that he or she will get higher grades” (Mantsios 329). Although numerous lower-class students refuse to become a statistic and succeed academically through high school, additional studies reveal that these same students are still four times less likely to receive a post graduate degree than a student from an upper-class family (Mantsios 330).
However, this unfortunate statistic is not due to lack of hard work, as an advocator of the American dream wants you to believe. Instead, the student’s failure is because even if a lower-class child succeeds at his or her school, the curriculum he or she received cannot possibly compare with the more advanced and challenging curriculum of a higher-class school, nor prepare a student to do well when presented with a college curriculum. Unfortunately, the school’s lack of appropriate education results directly from poor government funding.
So even with hard work, the lower-class student is still held down by his socio-economic status. Poverty-stricken parents are unable to offer their children the same attention and motivation as parents of a higher-class can, therefore never providing these children with the mindset that they are able to accomplish the American dream. According to Mantsios, 40 million Americans live in poverty, and the mental and physical affects the low standard of living has on them is undeniable (Mantsios 328). Citizens who live in poverty work long hours for little pay, yet return to a household that in no way symbolizes the hard work put forth.
Within this environment, very few people have the positive outlook to mentor children successfully. In addition, many families do not make sufficient income to provide adequate food, housing or health care, and so then health conditions are drastically different than those of the upper class. According to Mantsios, Lower-class standing is correlated with higher rates of infant mortality, eye and ear disease, arthritis, physical disability, diabetes, nutritional deficiency, respiratory disease, mental illness and heart disease (328).
Therefore, even if a parent did have a positive outlook to provide their child motivation to succeed, most would not have the time or physical and mental effort to give their children that type of attention, since their main priority is survival. Even Ken Hamblin, an advocator of the American Dream, pointed out the importance of parental involvement, “I have never believed-because I was never told…that I could never get the fullest measure of opportunity in America” (Hamblin 381). The importance of parental motivation is key in raising a child with confidence and inspiration to accomplish their American Dream.
Without it, many children are unable to defeat the remaining obstacles that stand in the way of success. Even though many Americans are proud of the free-trade economic structure in the United States, capitalist policy is only successful in further widening the gap between rich and poor, preventing the lower-class from attaining their American Dream. The American Dream was founded on the backs of small business-owners and farmers who at one time had the ability to become self-made men, but as Stephen Cruz pointed out in his interview with Studs Terkel, “It’s getting so big.
The small-business venture is not there anymore. Business has become too big to influence” (339). Because the capitalist economic structure supports private ownership and growth and opposes government intervention to prevent it, companies have grown big enough to have the characteristics of monopolies. Due to this, small companies or farmers cannot possibly compete with larger stores or corporate farms that can easily buy them out or price them out of business. Additionally, capitalism presents another oppressive strength that is beyond individual control: class domination.
According to Mantsios, “The class structure in the United States is a function of its economic system- capitalism” (331). Therefore, even though America prides itself on being a “classless society”, a class system is unavoidable with a free-trade economic system because the private and individualistic characteristics force a distinction between the haves and have-nots. Class distinction provides not only feelings of inferiority for the lower-classes, but monetary inadequacy as well. Over 66 percent of consumers with incomes over $100,000 or more annually have some type of inherited assets (Mantsios 331).
Higher-class children have an advantage from birth since they are guaranteed large sums of money at sometime in their lives. Furthermore, it is commonly known that it takes money to make money in a capitalistic system and so the inheritance laws only widen the gap between the rich and poor, keeping the lower-class exactly where they started: on the bottom. Even though the American Dream has been disproved numerous times, there continue to be advocates that insist the American dream is attainable to all those willing to work hard.
For example, Collin Powell reached his American dream and according to him, “People keep asking the secret of my success. There isn’t any secret. I work hard and spend long hours. It’s as simple as that” (Blue 306). While it is true that hard work is an ingredient of the American dream, Powell also admits that he had great support and motivation from his family, “They [Powell’s parents] wanted a better life for Colin…education was the key to a better life. The Powells taught their children success comes with hard work” (Blue 307). Therefore, Powell had another key ingredient, strong motivation from parents, to add to his determination.
But what about children who do not have that ingredient? Unfortunately, those children are never taught the importance of hard work and as a result, never show it. In addition, another success story, an African American by the name of Ken Hamblin, argues that advancement towards the American dream is based on virtues, qualities that are gained through some type of hard work or experience, not race or sex. However, like Dalton argues, “such standards…must come from somewhere. They [merits] must be decided upon by somebody…how should these be ranked? (Dalton 313). So if hypothetically we are judged solely on merits, everyone’s interpretation on the importance of those merits will be different. Perhaps Hamblin had the luck to be in the right place at the right time, where those in power thought highly of the merits he possessed, and perhaps he also had the luck to avoid places that didn’t. Besides using these examples, advocates also argue that even if the American Dream is not completely valid, it still provides a positive motivation for the lower-classes, encouraging the will to fight hard and not give up.
Still, although it might provide motivation, the other countless obstacles will still stand in the way of success, only to provide disheartenment and feelings of inadequacy. The American dream can only offer empty promises of equal opportunity to succeed. However, because the American Dream is so deeply embedded in our culture, it greatly influences our perception of others and our perception of success. The “all you need is hard work to succeed” mindset has encouraged Americans to flaunt costly possessions to give the persona of a hard worker, while Americans who do not own extravagant objects are looked at as lazy or incompetent.
In reality, most cases are opposite. It is undeniable that an American laboring long hours for minimum wage works harder than an American who doesn’t maintain a job because he lives off inheritance money, but that is not what the myth has taught us. The American Dream has taught us that each American has an equal opportunity to succeed and because it has been accepted for generations, the myth continues to make us blind to the many inequalities that prevent the lower class from reaching their dream.
Therefore, the American Dream will only leave lower-class Americans, “in a familiar place-on the outside looking in,” as they continue to see their dreams die, while they watch the dreams of the higher-class blossom (Money 296). The American Dream does not offer hope, but rather keeps Americans in the same class they were born into. Unless action is taken, the pattern will persist from generation to generation, making the rich richer and forcing the poor to become poorer.
This vicious cycle is a result of a blinding myth that not only gives false hopes, but prevents the inequalities of America from taking center stage. It seems as though the myth cannot be weakened, but then after all, with a little hard work, one can do anything. References Blue, Rose and Naden, Corinne J. “From Colin Powell: Straight to the Top. ” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. Terkel, Studs. “Stephen Cruz. ” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. Dalton, Harlon L. Horatio Alger” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. Hamblin, Ken. “The Black Avenger. ” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities. New York: Harper Collins, 1991 Mantsios, Gregory. “Class in America: Myths and Realities. “Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. “Money and Success. ” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St.