Is the American Dream still alive and well today?

Feb 6, 2023, 2:00 PM
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr....
Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
(Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY —  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the American dream as “the ideal that every citizen of the United States should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination and initiative.

Investopedia defines it as “the American dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone.”

But is the American dream — by whichever definition — still alive and well in the United States?

Scott Winship, senior fellow and director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said barriers to upward mobility hold many citizens down. He joined Inside Sources host Boyd Matheson to discuss how our politicians’ rhetoric surrounding the American dream is conflicting and confusing.

Winship said, for him, the American Dream includes two parts: The current generation of Americans should end up better than the previous; and every citizens should be able to fulfill their aspirations and not be limited by barriers to upward mobility.

Winship said the current generation is not doing as well as the previous generation on the social front.

“You can think of the decline of two-parent families, but it’s much bigger than that,” he said.

“There’s a decline in religious participation. There’s a decline in doing social activities and cooperating with neighbors and co-workers after work. So just kind of across the board. Trusting institutions is down. . . . And then this problem about upward mobility continues to be a really big problem that conservatives need to devote more attention to.”

The Dual Promise of the American Dream — and Why It’s Worth Defending

To gauge where the current generation of Americans exists in contrast to the previous generation, “what should we be measuring in terms of really getting an honest look at it?” Boyd asked.

“The bottom line is that if you measure things like income and earnings and the cost of living. . . we’re actually at a place where poverty is at an all-time low and where household incomes are at an all-time high, even for the middle class,” Winship said.

Upward and downward mobility

Boyd asked Winship for a sense of where minorities are now as far as those who started in and rose out of poverty and those who started in the middle class and fell into poverty.

If you divide society into fifths and your family background has no influence on your future, a child born in the bottom fifth has an equal chance of staying in the bottom fifth as an adult as moving up to the top fifth, which is called the coin-flip theory, Winship said.

“That’s the kind of a world where your background doesn’t matter . . . Now, some people think that’d be a terrible world because no matter how hard you sacrificed for your kids, no matter how hard you pushed them, it’s all sort of a coin flip,” Winship said. “I think that’s actually the wrong way to think about it.”

In the real word, Winship said, if a child starts in the bottom fifth, he or she has about a 55% to 60% chance of rising out of it as an adult.

A white American child raised today in the middle class has about a 20% chance of either rising, staying or falling out of the middle as an adult.

“But for African-Americans, there’s a big chance that if you start in the middle, you’ll end up even in the bottom quintile* — [he or she is] much more likely to end up less than in the middle than above the middle,” Winship said. “That’s something that hasn’t gotten any better since the heyday of the civil rights movement.”

He added that the solutions to such problems as the one outlined above would likely look different coming from either conservatives or progressives.

“But we should recognize that this is a problem,” Winship said.

“Yeah, definitely, and getting to the problem conversation is how we actually move everything forward — not just the politics of it all,” Boyd said.

*(Quintile is any of five equal groups into which a population can be divided according to the distribution of values of a particular variable.)


Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson brings a one-of-a-kind insider perspective to Utah and national politics. 

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Is the American Dream still alive and well today?