The American Dream: More than a bumper sticker

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Republished here from CommonWealth magazine’s Fall 2011 Editor’s Note.

In 1996, the first issue of CommonWealth magazine featured a cover story on the changing economics of middle-class life in Massachusetts. The story focused on Heritage Road in Billerica, where the residents were doing reasonably well but having some doubts about the promise of the American Dream.

As then-editor Dave Denison reported, the families on Heritage Road were not a discontented lot. Their homes were comfortable, their families intact, and every household contained at least one full-time wage earner. But Denison uncovered anxiety beneath the surface.

“There is a willingness to ask questions about something that has long been understood to be part of the promise of a hardworking middle-class life: upward mobility,” Denison reported. “Getting ahead. Is it even possible anymore? Is it more a matter of luck than effort? Has something changed in the American economy that means preventing a slide backward is the best we can hope for?”

Fifteen years later, CommonWealth is asking the same questions. And in this special issue on the American Dream, the answers are troubling. In the wake of the Great Re­cession, the American Dream is in deep trouble, the middle class is being squeezed, and the nation’s politicians seem hopelessly gridlocked. As our cover says, the American Dream has become the American Scream. I started this project somewhat reluctantly. I thought the subject was too broad, too amorphous. At one of our early planning sessions, no one could agree on what the American Dream was. But as I read, researched, and talked with people about this issue—and then watched as protesters took to the streets in New York, Boston, and elsewhere—I came to see that the American Dream is far more than a bumper sticker.

David Ellwood, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, summed up the American Dream’s importance. “If you have that belief, that your hard effort will pay off for you and your kids, that’s a reason to work hard, a reason to invest, a reason to believe in your country. It’s even a reason to believe in your government,” he says. “But when you don’t believe that way, when you feel like somebody else is getting rich but you’re not, and your escalator is hardly going up at all and maybe even going down, that’s a very different feeling. I think we’re in danger of losing that genuine feeling that you can be anybody and anything.”

Our coverage in this issue analyzes the American Dream from a variety of angles. MassINC’s Ben Forman and Caroline Koch develop a Middle-Class Index that can be used to gauge how Massachusetts residents are faring and how their experiences compare to middle-class citizens of other states. The magazine also features articles on income inequality, the growing education gender gap, the housing paradox in Massachusetts, the precariousness of retirement, and three immigrants who live in Framing­ham. We talk to think tank scholars who are putting aside their political differences to find common ground around the American Dream and review a new book on the declining middle class. All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, and Boston College professor Alan Wolfe pulls no punches in his devastating critique of Washington. “As far as politics is concerned, there is no longer an American Dream because we no longer dream and because we cannot agree on what it means to be an American,” he says.

Our sponsors