Death of the American Dream

Return to menu

by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

The “American Dream” of upward mobility has always been a myth.  Americans now enjoy less economic mobility than Canada and much of Western Europe.” Some of the factors that have destroyed mobility include “more children raised by single mothers, ‘uniquely high incarceration rates,’  and compensation that tilts heavily toward those who have’ education and “access to better schools.”

Death of the American Dream

by BAR editor and columnist Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

The gap between chief executive compensation and average U.S. worker pay rose from a ratio of 263-to-1 in 2009 to 325-to-1 in 2010.“

In Rethinking the American Dream, a brilliant Vanity Fair article published in 2009, David Camp expresses the fear that the American dream has morphed from a desire to live well, to consumerist greed. “It was freedom from want, not freedom to want—a world away from the idea that the patriotic thing to do in tough times is go shopping.” Now it seems every public holiday, whether Memorial Day, Thanksgiving or Martin Luther King Day, has a shopping extravaganza attached to it in the form of sales. That’s why the national psyche appears to believe we get to stay at home on these days of remembrance – to go shopping, to buy more of that which we don’t really need.

Jason Deparle in the International Herald Tribune this week notes, however, that the American dream is a myth. “Americans,” he says, “enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe.” He quotes a study by Markus Jantti, a Swedish economist who “found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults”(Denmark 25 percent, Britain 30 percent). Just eight percent of Americans at the bottom rose to the top fifth, which compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.

Forty-two percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults.”

Other factors that led to greater difficulty to move out of poverty here included more children raised by single mothers, “uniquely high incarceration rates,” “pay in America tilts heavily toward those who have” education and “access to better schools.” Deparle quotes research that notes: “The United States is less unionized than many of its peers, which may lead to lower wages among the least skilled.”

But there are other ways that we can see the dream has become corrupted:

* In 2010, the Institute for Policy Studies in a report titled The Massive CEO Rewards for Tax Dodging noted, “The gap between chief executive compensation and average U.S. worker pay rose from a ratio of 263-to-1 in 2009 to 325-to-1 in 2010.“

* The United States is the third most productive economy in the world (behind Taiwan and Sweden) but at a significant cost; from 1979 to 2000, married couples with children increased their working hours on average by around 16 percent or almost 500 hours per year, according to Running Faster to Stay in Place: The growth of family work hours and incomes, from the America Foundation. Those hours have increased since the 2008 economic crisis and many employees are resorting to medications to help them cope, which in turn is seeing unprecedented prescription drug addiction.

* From 1979 to 2000, married couples with children increased their working hours on average by an estimated 16 percent or almost 500 hours per year, according to the same report.

* Professor Stephen Cohen, a lecturer in tax law at Georgetown University notes that this translates to fewer hours to care for children, clean the house and relax. He says that “inflation adjustments that make the data from different years comparable do not seem to adequately reflect increases in the cost of housing, which is the largest single expenditure for most households. According to a study by Robert H. Frank, the median earner, who had to work 41.5 hours monthly to pay for a home in 1970, had to work 67.5 hours monthly to pay for an equivalent home in 2000.”

* Cohen points to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook note that the Gini co-efficient, the measure of inequality in a society, is higher in the United States, “thus evidencing more income inequality — than for any other industrialized country… The CIA’s Gini coefficient for the United States is 0.450 (2007), compared, for example, with 0.270 for Germany (2006), 0.327 for France (2008), 0.247 for Hungary (2009), 0.320 for Italy (2006), 0.376 for Japan (2008), and 0.340 for the United Kingdom (2005).”

* And Professor Juliet Schor, a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard has observed: “Americans are literally working themselves to death—as jobs contribute to heart disease, hypertension, gastric problems, depression, exhaustion, and a variety of other ailments. Surprisingly, the high-powered jobs are not the most dangerous. The most stressful workplaces are the ‘electronic sweatshops’ and assembly lines where a demanding pace is coupled with virtually no individual discretion… According to sleep researchers, studies point to a "sleep deficit" among Americans … the number of people showing up at sleep disorder clinics with serious problems has skyrocketed…”

The median earner, who had to work 41.5 hours monthly to pay for a home in 1970, had to work 67.5 hours monthly to pay for an equivalent home in 2000.”

Camp observes that, “In his 1958 book The Affluent Society, a best-seller, [John Kenneth] Galbraith posited that America had reached an almost unsurpassable and unsustainable degree of mass affluence because the average family owned a home, one car, and one TV. In pursuing these goals, Galbraith said, Americans had lost a sense of their priorities, focusing on consumerism at the expense of public-sector needs like parks, schools, and infrastructure maintenance. At the same time, they had lost their parents’ Depression-era sense of thrift, blithely taking out personal loans or enrolling in installment plans to buy their cars and refrigerators.”

And by 1986 President Reagan added $1 trillion to the national debt, and the United States, formerly the world’s biggest creditor nation, became the world’s biggest debtor nation. In succumbing to greed we’ve lost our way, the dream has gone, as we grasp after more our capacity to attain it flees. Perhaps Malcolm X said it best: “I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”

Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA is available through amazon.com and the National Whistleblower Center. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit lead to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR.)

Return to menu