The American dream has loomed large in the country's collective psyche for centuries. It led people on a trek westward in search of gold in the 1800s. Later, the Dream motivated millions of Europeans to land on America's shores with hopes of a better life. It is an idea that resonates with people, even though it's hard to nail down just what it means. In an attempt to better understand the American dream, The National League of Cities surveyed 1,002 Americans asking them questions about the American dream ranging from obstacles to characteristics.
Agreeing on just what the American dream means is very difficult. The most cited characteristic on an open-ended question was financial stability. However, even that answer only garnered 24 percent of respondents. "I have always thought about the American dream in economic terms. Is my family better off than my parents' family and will my children be able to live in better circumstances than I'm living?" Says Karen J. Anderson, mayor of Minnetonka, Minnesota a suburb of Minneapolis and a former president of The National League of Cities.
For young Americans, though, it was not financial security that characterized living the American dream. "For Americans under the age of 23, the primary answer in terms of defining the American dream was freedom. It brought to my mind what a huge impact September 11th of 2001 has had on our lives and our young peoples' lives," explains Anderson. Twenty-three percent of 18- to 22-year-olds cited living in freedom as the most important characteristic of the American dream. While it's not clear whether these young people will hold onto this opinion as they move into their adult lives with families to care for, as of right now financial security is far from the top of their minds. Only 5 percent of 18-to 22-year-olds surveyed cited it, in fact.
However it's defined, it seems that Americans believe that the dream is getting harder to achieve. In fact, 67 percent of Americans believe the American dream is difficult for the average person to obtain and even more, 70 percent, believe it's becoming much harder for young families to achieve. One of the findings especially bothersome to Anderson was the 45 percent of respondents who believe that the government is actually hindering their pursuit of the American dream more than helping.
"That's something we have to take a look at to make sure that all our levels of government can work together to make it easier for people to achieve what their concept is of the American dream," explains Anderson. "That's not just working together to increase this feeling of safety and security, but also to help people that are looking for jobs, to help provide affordable housing throughout the country. To make sure that every child has access to an equal and a quality education. Those are the basic elements of the American dream."
Unfortunately, those basic elements seem farthest away from African-Americans. While 36 percent of Hispanics and 32 percent of Caucasians believe they are not living the American dream an astounding 53 percent of African-Americans said the same. Anderson wasn't surprised. "There are still divides in our country in terms of where people live and access to good education and that's where we need to work together on the state and federal level to widen these opportunities and make them accessible to more folks." What does this say about America if ordinary people no longer believe they can achieve the happiness they desire? Clearly all levels of government need to take notice that such an important piece of the American consciousness and history seems harder than ever to obtain.