By Mark Rank
In celebrating the founding of this country, many things come to mind when asked to describe the essence of America — its energy and innovation; the various liberties that Americans enjoy; the racial and ethnic mix of its people. But perhaps fundamental to the essence of America has been the concept of the American Dream. It has captured the imagination of people from all walks of life and represents the heart and soul of the country.
It can be found throughout our culture and history. It lies at the heart of Ben Franklin’s common wisdom chronicled in Poor Richard’s Almanack, in the words of Emma Lazarus etched onto the Statue of Liberty, the poetry of Carl Sandburg, or the soaring oratory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It can be heard in the music of Aaron Copland or jazz innovator Charlie Parker. And it can be seen across skylines from Manhattan to Chicago to San Francisco.
Yet it can also be found in the most humble of places. It lies in the hopes of a single mother struggling on a minimum wage job to build a better life for herself and her children. It rests upon the unwavering belief of a teenager living down some forgotten back road that one day he or she will find fortune and fame. And it is present in the efforts and sacrifices of a first generation American family to see their kids through college.
So what exactly is this thing we call the American Dream? After talking with dozens of Americans and pouring over numerous social surveys, I have come to the conclusion that there are three basic elements to the Dream. The first is that the American Dream is about having the freedom to pursue one’s interests and passions in life. By doing so, we are able to strive toward our potential. Although the specific passions and interests that people pursue are varied and wide ranging, the freedom to engage in those pursuits is viewed as paramount. The ability to do so enables individuals to develop their talents and to truly live out their biographies. America, at its best, is a country that not only allows but encourages this to happen. As one of our interviewees put it when asked about the American Dream, “What I’ve always known it to be is being able to live in freedom, being able to pursue your dreams no matter what your dreams were, and having the opportunity to pursue them.”
A second core feature of the American Dream is the importance of economic security and well-being. This consists of having the resources and tools to live a comfortable and rewarding life. It includes working at a decent paying job, being able to provide for your children, owning a home, having some savings in the bank, and being able to retire in comfort. These are seen as just rewards for working hard and playing by the rules. Individuals frequently bring up the fact that hard work should lead to economic security in one’s life and in the life of one’s family. This is viewed as an absolutely fundamental part of the bargain of what the American Dream is all about.
Finally, a third key component of the American Dream is the importance of having hope and optimism with respect to seeing progress in one’s life. It is about moving forward with confidence toward the challenges that lie ahead, with the belief that they will ultimately be navigated successfully. Americans in general are an optimistic group, and the American Dream reflects that optimism. There is an enduring belief that our best days are ahead of us. This abiding faith in progress applies not only to one’s own life, but to the lives of one’s children and the next generation, as well as to the future of the country as a whole.
These three beliefs, then, constitute the core of the American Dream. They are viewed as the essential components for what a good life looks like in the United States. They remind us of what the sacrifices and struggles of all who came before us were about. And so as we celebrate the founding of our country, it is a time to also remind ourselves what is unique and memorable about the nation as a whole. The American Dream is surely one such feature.
Mark R. Rank is the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the co-author of Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes.
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Image: US Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Dennis Cantrell. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.