Is the American Dream Lost?

The American economy — and therefore to an extent, the American Dream — is like a water bear. Water bears are microscopic tardigrades with a particularly resilient and unique physiology. They live in and require water, not shocking, considering the name. If you put them in a dry environment though, they of course cease to live — or so it appears. But while they may look dead, add water later — even much later, as in ten years — and they’ll reanimate. America’s economy isn’t bulletproof, and the American Dream isn’t an enduring light that shines despite the darkness. We’re not a phoenix, reborn no matter what in a predictable and timely manner.

When the water dries up, we slow down until we look dead, sometimes for quite a while, but given enough time and a few drops of water, we come around eventually. This would be the historical view of our the American Dream, our faith in our economy, and in the possibility that we can work hard enough to get ahead. That faith dries up, but it will come back. Look at the Great Depression. Between 1929 and 1933, the unemployment rate shot up from 3.2 percent to 24.9 percent, still sitting at a height of 17.2 percent in 1939, according to ShmoopUniversity.com, referencing a Cambridge University study of Historical Statistics of the United States.

The Great Depression eventually gave way, with help from the New Deal, to the surprising prosperity of the early Vietnam years in the 1960s, when extra spending and work actually buoyed the economy initially. So while the Vietnam war and the draft were hardly part of the American Dream, the economic conditions, G.I. Bill, and other resulting conditions were more in keeping with a middle class dream of fiscal improvement and a high standard of living. Of course, then the ’70s hit with high unemployment and inflation. The new millenium hit, and between 2000 and 2005, the median household net worth increased in the U.S. from $81,821 to $106,585. It then fell between 2005 and 2011, with the onset of the Great Recession, by 35 percent to $68,828 in the U.S., according to a study of Household Wealth in the U.S. from census.gov. On top of that, the housing market crashed, networth decreased — as shown in the table below — and unemployment rose considerably.

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We once more found ourselves in an economic slump, and the American Dream once more took a hit. That said, the U.S. is already seeing slow economic improvements; it’s not a quick resurrection, but the resilient water bear of the American Dream is beginning to see a little bit of moisture. Not too much moisture, though, as we’re definitely still in a dry spell. According to CNN Money for example, Americans’ median wealth rings in at $44,900 per individual adult, meaning 50 percent have more and 50 percent have less, shuffling the U.S. into nineteenth place under neighboring Canada, as well as Japan, Australia, and a big chunk of Western Europe.

“Americans tend to think of their middle class as being the richest in the world, but it turns out, in terms of wealth, they rank fairly low among major industrialized countries,” Edward Wolff, New York economic professors, told CNN. It’s notable that the American Dream is classically more about one’s ability to “make it” when starting out from modest beginnings, making the status of middle class Americans of particular import when looking at just how dried up our American Dream is. CNN Money points out that while the U.S. has 42 percent of the world’s millionaires, this is simply skewing the rest of our nation’s wealth stats, making it particularly important to look at median measures of the nation’s wealth as opposed to averages.

This is when it’s important to recognize that the American Dream isn’t entirely about economic indicators; it’s about morale as well, and while Wolff may be right about the general conception of wealth compared to other countries, it seems likely that Americans have grown more pessimistic about the more general, less easily quantifiable concept of the American Dream.

A CNN/ORC International poll in 2014 showed that 59 percent of Americans believe the American dream is impossible, compared to 40 percent who say they believe it is (1 percent has no opinion.) The poll also showed that a majority believe their children won’t have a brighter future, 63 percent saying kids won’t be better off than their parents. This was a discovery backed up by a second poll conducted by The Washington Post/Miller Center, which showed 54 percent saying that they were doing better than their parents, but with only 39 percent saying their children would see their quality of life improve over theirs.

Interestingly, both these polls diverge in attitude from a recent Gallup poll which shows that Americans increasingly feel that their standard of living is improving and is one they are satisfied with. Eighty percent of Americans say they are satisfied with their current standard of living, “all the things [they] can buy and do,” with only 20 percent saying they are dissatisfied. Future expectations have improved even more rapidly according to the poll, from 47 percent who said they expected things to worsen in 2008. In 2014, 59 percent of respondents said they felt their standard of living was getting better, and 26 percent said it was getting worse.

So why such a negative perception of the American Dream? Once again, this could be something detached at least in part from pure finance. A separate Gallup poll shows that in 2013 Americans were reporting rather low confidence in everything from the presidency, to the medical system, to public schools, banks, and especially to Congress — only 10 percent said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress. This, paired with a Gallup poll showing a record high — 42 percent — identifying as Independents rather than with either the left or the right reveals a degree of political cynicism that could be dragging down American’s hope for the future. Economically, the nation is bound to have good and bad periods, but morality is a more complex issue to tackle. Obama’s job approval is hardly doing great, but Republican identification is also the lowest it’s been in 25 years, according to Gallup. The American Economy is a water bear, but the American Dream is more like a water bear swimming in water without it’s meal of choice: nematodes. It’s alive and mobile, but it’s missing something from its diet.

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