Is the American Dream Achievable Today?

It may be achievable for the few privileged and powerful, but it is no longer as easily reached as many would believe. Today in American Society there are many more boundaries to success. Boundaries include, but are not limited to: discrimination, access to health care, stagnant wages, environment, an unstable labor market, and wealth inequality.

Over the past 50 years, a child’s chance of earning more than his or her parents has plummeted from 90% to 50%, proving the American Dream becomes harder and harder to achieve every year. 

How is the American Dream Defined?

The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers.

In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.

And so, according to Adams,The American Dream is supposedly readily available if people are industrious, irregardless of their social class or circumstance at birth. But that doesn’t match up to the society we’ve created today where there are a tremendous amount of barriers and almost no upward mobility for the lower classes.

Below is list of barriers that make achieving the so called “American Dream” nearly impossible for most Americans.

No Upward Mobility

The American Dream of upward mobility from the lower to the middle-class has all but vanished because the richest Americans are receiving a disproportionate share of income and wealth in the U.S.

Only 6 percent of people born in the bottom 20 percent of household incomes will make it to the top 20 percent of household incomes.

This collapse of social mobility doesn’t just affect those born into poverty. Those born squarely in the middle of the household income scale have a 20 percent lower chance of moving to the high end of the income scale than they did 30 years ago. 

Wealth Inequality

People born outside the top 20 percent have much worse outcomes in overall health, life expectancy, educational attainment, happiness and a host of other measures.

The top one percent of the usual income distribution holds over $25 trillion in wealth, which exceeds the wealth of the bottom 80 percent. That is more than all the goods and services produced in the U.S. economy in 2018.

Infographic: U.S. Wealth Distribution - Who Owns the Most? (Details in article).

Labor Market

All but for the highest-paid workers, wages have been stagnant for almost 30 years. In addition, American workers must now contend with an unstable and unsteady labor market.

Almost everybody, except the best-paid workers, routinely experience multiple, sustained periods of unemployment. Workers are now more likely to be underemployed and hold jobs that require less training or education than they have. Also, workers are more likely to hold more than one job at a time and quilt a “patchwork of paychecks” together just to make ends meet.

Retirement Insecurity and Instability

One-fifth of all employed Americans must find ways to supplement their income just to pay bills and buy groceries. Fourteen percent are spending more on their credit cards to pay for their monthly living expenses, and 17 percent of workers have been forced to sacrifice their retirement security. After paying monthly expenses there is hardly any money going into savings for retirement.

Federal Reserve data show that 31 percent of people who have not yet retired and 19 percent of 55-64-year-old adults who are nearing retirement age have no post-work savings or private pension. On top of that, Americans coming into retirement are also burdened with more housing, automobile and even student loan debts than people their age did a decade ago. An unsettling fact is that some people will never be able to afford to retire and are forced to work until they die.

Even if they could retire, there is no security. Some retirees have to get back into the job market because they are unable to afford the expenses of the lifestyle they are accustom. A survey, from RAND Corporation, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired. Some people will never be able to afford to retire and are forced to work until the day they die.

Access and Quality of Health Care

The healthcare industry is worth $3.6 trillion but there are around 50 million Americans, including 8 million children, who lack health insurance. This is because private insurances are in business to make money. They undercut they the insured by providing coverage that is hardly adequate. Many people must pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in premiums, deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments. 

The United States relies largely on a direct-fee system, in which patients under 65 (those 65 and older are covered by Medicare) are expected to pay for medical costs themselves, aided by private health insurance, usually through one’s employer. The other government program, Medicaid, pays some health-care costs for the poor, but many low-income families are not poor enough to receive Medicaid

It’s hard to find coverage in a privatized system and those who can’t afford it have to go uninsured. Their lack of health insurance can be deadly. As uninsured people are less likely to receive preventive health care and care for various conditions and illnesses.

“Problems Of Health Care In The United States”. Saylordotorg.Github.Io, (2020)

Source of coveragePercentage of people with this coverage
Other public1%
Source: Data from Kaiser Family Foundation. (2012). Kaiser state health facts. Retrieved from

Institutional Racism

The community in which a person is born plays a big role on ones ability to achieve upward mobility. People of Color not only have to overcome all of the aforementioned barriers but also racial barriers that most people in power refuse to acknowledge.

Institutional racism is the existence of systematic policies or laws and practices that provide differential access to goods, services and opportunities of society by race. Part of what makes racial discrimination so devious is that it can occur without any awareness that it is happening.

For children and families it affects where they live, the quality of the education they receive, their income, types of food they have access to, their exposure to pollutants, whether they have access to clean air, clean water or adequate medical treatment, and the types of interactions they have with the criminal justice system.

Carmichael and Hamilton, the authors of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, wrote that while individual racism is often identifiable because of its overt nature, institutional racism is less perceptible because of its “less overt, far more subtle” nature. Institutional racism “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than [individual racism]”

Given the aforementioned reasons, the American Dream is no longer a reality for most people. There are too many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, with no upward mobility in sight, for the notion of the American Dream to hold true today.

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