I’ve been thinking about America as the “land of opportunity” quite a bit lately. Whether I’ve been on the treadmill, in the shower or driving around town, my mind keeps going back to that topic — probably more often than is healthy.
More precisely, though, what I keep pondering is the present-day attainability of that pillar of the American Dream. Put simply: To what degree is America still the land of opportunity?
Apparently, many Americans believe the American Dream is dying — or at least that it’s becoming less attainable. Late in 2013, Gallup released poll results showing that only 52 percent of Americans believe that there is plenty of economic opportunity in the United States. This number has been in steep decline since the late 1990s and is nowhere near its 1950s high of 87 percent.
So there’s a growing feeling that we’re backsliding away from increased earning potential. But does this widespread hunch have any legitimacy? Not according to a collection of researchers from Harvard, University of California, Berkeley and the U.S. Treasury. In January of this year, their work, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, showed that people “entering the labor market today have the same chances of moving up in the income distribution (relative to their parents) as children born in the 1970s.”
Well, that’s great. But I think our modern interpretation of “opportunity” is still a bit skewed. Actually, I think we tend to equate opportunity with little else but monetary gains. While generational economic advancement trends still look positive, I think that if we consider the definition of opportunity in the traditional American sense, we will find that we have plenty to celebrate.
Throughout history, immigrants came to this continent for all kinds of reasons. Sure, many were lured by the seemingly boundless financial possibilities of a near pristine land, but there also came waves of people attracted by the chance to pass their days doing whatever they pleased — to live where they wanted, to grow what they needed and to worship in whatever manner they saw fit.
The definition of opportunity began to shrink in scope thanks to the Gilded Age. As the titans of industry — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, etc. — were creating unheard-of fortunes for themselves and many others, opportunity in the United States became as much about wealth accumulation as it had previously been about liberty and autonomy. During the closing of the 19th century, Horatio Alger’s materialistic version of opportunity — which essentially stated that, with enough hard work anyone could move from “rags to respectability” — supplanted the notion of opportunity traditionally embodied by Jeffersonian individualism.
I’m not saying that we’ve gone off path with our modern understanding of the American Dream (a phrase, which by the way, didn’t appear until the 1930s). Rather, I think that if we broaden our appreciation of the terminology, we might be able to see our current state of affairs in a more optimistic light.
Just think about all the different professions that exist out there. The United States has the most diverse economy that has existed at any time, anywhere on planet Earth. Combine that with ever-increasing educational opportunities, and most Americans have the opportunity to wake up every morning and go to work doing whatever they want to do to earn a paycheck — a paycheck our parents would likely be envious over, no less.
Chances are that both our Gilded Age and Revolutionary War forebears would find satisfactory elements alive in modern America. Maybe the question, then, isn’t so much: “Is the American Dream still alive?” Instead, we might ask: “What are we doing to make sure the Dream lives on?”
A civic engagement advocate and history teacher, David Allen Martin writes from Chattanooga.