What does the American Dream mean?

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By Karlyn Bowman American Enterprise Institute 

american_dream_flag_beach_shutterstock_1000x667For more information on public opinion on the American Dream, see AEI’s ebook Is the American Dream Alive? Examining Americans’ Attitudes here.

Do Americans believe the American Dream is endangered? The December issue of AEI’s Political Report distills public opinion on what Americans think the dream means and how close they are to it and looks at how opinion about this perennial topic has changed over time.

  • Defining the dream: What constitutes the dream has stayed constant since pollsters started asking about it years ago. Education, freedom, and homeownership are core elements — being wealthy is not.
  • Harder than in the past: In 2014, 70 percent of adults ages 34 or older told Pew pollsters that young adults today face more challenges than they did when starting out. In surveys taken years ago, people also agreed it would be harder for young people than it was for themselves.
  • Opportunity for average Joe: Forty-three percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters in 1998 that there was more opportunity for the average person to get ahead than there used to be. In 2013, 12 percent gave that response, while 58 percent said less and 28 percent said about the same (Gallup).
  • Does hard work pay off? It depends. Twenty years ago, 68 percent of those surveyed by Pew said most people could make it if they worked hard. In 2014, 65 percent gave that response. But Americans are less satisfied now (54 percent) than they were in 2001 (76 percent) about the opportunities America offers to get ahead by hard work (Gallup).
  • Achieving the dream, eventually: Most Americans surveyed feel they will eventually achieve the dream, if they haven’t already. Thirty percent of Hispanics feel as if they have achieved the American Dream, while 56 percent feel they will eventually. Twenty-one percent of African Americans say they have achieved the dream, while 60 percent feel they will eventually (Harvard School of Public Health/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/NPR).
  • Millennials believe in the dream — for themselves: A third say they now earn enough to lead the kind of life they want, and another 53 percent say they will eventually (Pew). Millennials are less confident about “their generation.”

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