Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan asked recently, “What’s Become of the American Dream,” which she defines as the belief that in America, “You can start from anywhere and become anything.”
Our history is certainly filled with many inspiring rags to riches stories that have given hope to generations of Americans. But the American Dream is more than an aspirational belief.
Coined in 1931 by historian James Truslow Adams, “The American Dream” is a promise that if you work hard you can expect a good life in return. It’s a promise that society won’t be rigged against hard working people who play by the rules. It’s a promise of opportunity, justice, freedom and security.
Today, that promise is broken.
For the first time in history, a majority of American children are worse off than their parents. More and more of our wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few and income mobility is shrinking. If you’re born poor today, you are more likely to stay poor than if you were born poor a century ago.
Basic amenities like quality education and a secure retirement are increasingly at risk. In a world of automation and globalization, good jobs that support a family are harder and harder to come by. For many households, two or three jobs are needed to make ends meet.
But for government intervention, a huge percentage of Americans would not have affordable health care. If some people in Washington have their way, guaranteed health care will go away to be replaced by a system that will leave millions uncovered.
After decades of policies promoting home ownership, it’s harder today for working families to own a little piece of America. Many young people who are lucky or smart enough to finish college are saddled with so much debt, they can’t dig their way out to buy a home.
Ms. Noonan argues that we don’t measure the American Dream by the size of our homes or our bank accounts but rather by the presence of opportunity to rise from nothing to something. Perhaps, but in the absence of such opportunity, we can measure wages and the cost of college, the size of our retirement checks and the value of our homes. We can measure the price of everything from health care to food to school uniforms.
That is not to say that all the best things in life—love, family, faith, freedom, nature’s beauty, the musician’s song and the artist’s vision—can be measured. But when the core promises at the heart of the American Dream go unfulfilled, we lose the one thing that makes it possible to appreciate all of these other things—our peace of mind.
Today, drug abuse, suicide and premature death is rising for White males, millions of whom have dropped out of the workforce. J.D. Vance has written about them in his excellent book “Hillbilly Elegy.” Robert Putnam covered some of the same ground in “Our Kids.” Susan Faludi highlighted the trend back in 2000 with “Stiffed.”
Despite more than six straight years of job growth, these are dark, dispiriting times for the country. Too many of our leaders have chosen division over unity, casting blame instead of taking responsibility, and stoking fear instead of showing courage.
That’s not the America we know and love. That’s not the America our fathers and mothers built. That’s not the America we want to leave to our kids.
The current path is simply not sustainable. We cannot be a country where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top. We cannot deny hard-working people a decent, middle-class life.
While we don’t control all of the economic forces that drive down wages and eliminate jobs, we can work together to counter them. We can empower working people. We can distribute income more widely with fair tax policies.
We can lower the costs of college through technology and by recognizing skills rather than credits. We can partner with business to grow the industries of the future.
And we can find an honest way to measure the dream, factoring in jobs, wages, home ownership, educational attainment, income inequality, economic mobility and family security tied to affordable health care and retirement. And then we can hold ourselves and our elected officials truly accountable.
It’s time to renew the promise of America—that you can start from anywhere and become anything. We can’t make America great again unless we make the dream real again.