The American Dream

I recently read Bulldog’s post entitled “What Next, Brand America?” with great interest. Shawn Parr’s personal story of immigrating to the United States with the dream of achieving his aspirations through hard work is inspirational. I also took heed of the Arthur Laffer quote in the article, “If you pay people to be poor, you will get more and more poor people.” Parr shared an interesting and highly relevant concern that our nation may be “creating a culture of dependency and entitlement where a lack of purpose overshadows the clarity of the American Dream.”

I also think the greatness of our country is directly related to people’s ability to achieve the American Dream. It is the driving reason behind why I have been evangelizing that both economic development professionals and elected officials should be held accountable for creating the conditions that enable achievement of the American Dream.

What is the American Dream?
Xavier University has been formally studying what this dream is all about. They have created a unique and statistically validated measure that quantifies the American Dream in its entirety. The American Dream Composite Index (ADCI) gauges our nation’s well-being as a function of the multifaceted American Dream. The Index reveals the degree to which people believe they are achieving their personal version of the American Dream.

One of the key findings from the research is that the American Dream is essentially a compilation of many dreams. The team at Xavier has used statistics to define five key areas that tend to capture most people’s personal dream, including Economic (satisfaction with finances, job, home ownership and health care), Well-being (contentment with health and prosperity in life), Societal Context (the extent to which the government, businesses and people are fair and trustworthy), Diversity (the degree to which differences are assimilated into one’s community), and Environment (extent of pollution in the air, food, water and land that is encountered). The ADCI provides insights into the sentiment of people across all five of the key drivers of the American Dream.

Another key finding was that the definition of the American Dream in James Truslow Adams’ was essentially spot on. He described it as “The dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with an opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” This is primarily the reason Parr cited for his immigration to the United States over 20 years ago—and it remains the reason why so many people continue to immigrate to the U.S. from around the world.

How Healthy is the American Dream?
Based on the ADCI score for 2012, 64% of people believe the American Dream is being realized. On the flipside, however, that means one-third (36%) believe their American Dream remains to be realized. Perhaps this gap is what Parr is sensing when he says “…today, if feels like that dream is changing.” Undoubtedly, people’s perception of their opportunity to attain the American Dream has undergone some change—and I would bet not for the better—but the American Dream itself has not changed.

If you look closer at the 2012 data and focus on the five key drivers, you can see where the biggest challenges lie. Americans feel better than average about the nation’s performance in the areas of Well-being (index 108), Diversity (index 115), and the Environment (index 106). But they feel worse about performance in the Economic (index 97) and Societal (index 83) areas. This means people are disheartened about their ability to financially provide for themselves and their families, and don’t trust that businesses or the government have their best interests at heart.

In my opinion, this is an unacceptable situation and needs to be thoughtfully addressed. If left unattended, the belief that one can actually attain the American Dream will dissipate.

The solution is for local economic development professionals and elected officials to begin using the ADCI data as a source of insight for local strategic planning. The ADCI data can highlight areas where a state (and soon MSA) has a competitive advantage or disadvantage relative to the nation and other states in enabling realization of the American Dream. Strategies can be developed and investment choices made to neutralize any disadvantages and maximize any identified advantages. The result will be barrier removal and enabling residents to realize more of the American Dream.

It’s not about jobs. It’s about enabling more individuals—and communities—to achieve the American Dream. And, it’s about time we hold economic development professionals and elected officials accountable for what really matters.

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