In Focus: How the American Dream is Perceived By Different Groups

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What is the American Dream

"When I first think about the American Dream I always think about the white picket fence and the husband and wife, kid, dog. That whole stereotype there," Antonia Mason, a college student, said.

Mason grew up hearing and learning about the ideology of the American Dream. The images that surround the American Dream are well defined and often engrained in the minds of American citizens. Over time it begins to mean more.

"The American Dream to me personally is my dream and making my dream a reality," Mason said.

Mason is in her third year at Ohio University studying exercise physiology. Her version of the American Dream is to help train collegiate and professional athletes.

Lisa Roberts is the founder and operator to Friends and Neighbors Food Pantry in Coolville, Ohio. She said freedom is central for the American Dream to work.

"The biggest thing about the American Dream is the freedom to choose. To choose what church I want to go to, whether or not I want to carry a gun or a weapon, what schools I want to go to, where I literally want to live," Roberts said.

Roberts, though, realizes that so often people are unable to make these choices because other factors get in the way. In her work she personally sees the poverty in southeast Ohio

"I never was much on dreaming to be rich. For me, it's more like dreaming to have enough to get by," Roberts said.

Changes in the American Dream

Ohio University professor, Julie White, teaches political science. She teaches her class to think critically about the American Dream they grew up hearing about. According to White,  individualism, capitalist markets, hard work and upward mobility are central to the ideology of the American Dream.

"[The American Dream is] this idea that we all believe that in the end individual merit should be the explanation for how far one makes it in competitive society," White said.

At the center of the American Dream is an individual's determination and hard work to achieve and become, particularly financially, successful. Antonia Mason believes this is true in her own life.

"Whatever you want to do is achievable. It sounds so cliché, but I wholeheartedly believe that. And I feel like it doesn't matter where you come from, you can make it happen," Mason said. "So based on what you want to do and the effort you're putting in to what you want to do will determine your success.

But over time in America more people have begun to question if pursuing the American Dream is that simple.

Lisa Roberts of Friends and Neighbors Food Pantry sees up close the struggles of so many in Appalachian Ohio. She disagrees with the idea that an individual's hard work is the only determinant for whether someone achieves the American Dream.

"I absolutely do not agree with that. I think that the circumstances you grow up in, that you are living in everyday, those things form the kind of person you are," Roberts said.

"There's significant evidence that in the last ten years, a lot of Americans have come to believe that it is the socio-economic circumstance into which you were born that is most likely to determine how far you're going to make it in society," White said. "So I think we're living in interesting times, with respect to the American Dream."

According to White, certain segments of the American population, particularly historically marginalized groups, have always been more suspicious of the American Dream. These groups include racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. In recent years more and more Americans are becoming suspicious of how attainable the ideal American Dream is.

"Essentially what we see, and many people have attributed this to the 2008 financial crisis, is a greater degree of skepticism about the reality of the American Dream among middle class white educated Americans," White said. "And they had historically been a group that expressed a high level of confidence in the attainability of the American Dream."


African Americans and the American Dream

White says that people of color, unlike the white Americans, have always been more suspicious of the reality of the American Dream. Mason said that seems to be true of her African American neighborhood back at home in  Columbus, Ohio.

"The American Dream? I don't think it's a reality for them, I don't," Mason said.

Robin Muhammad, an Ohio University African American Studies professor, has been studying racial disparity and upward mobility for years.

"I do think that African Americans feel and substantiate that a lot of the American Dream remains out of reach," Muhammad said.

According to the Pew Research Center's report, Pursing the American Dream, there is significant differences that make it difficult for African Americans to experience the ideal American Dream. They report that in just starting off there is a big disparity. 65 percent of black Americans are born at the bottom of the income ladder compared to only 11 percent of white Americans.

African Americans also have a more difficult time exceeding the wealth of their parents. 66 percent of African Americans become more wealthy than their parents compared to 89 percent of white Americans who surpass their parent's income. The Pew Research study also shows, "Blacks are more likely to be stuck at the bottom and more likely to fall from the middle of the family income and wealth ladders than are whites."

Muhammad said to overcome these problems will require community action and that change must come from within because it rarely comes from outside the community.

"It's about asking individuals in the African American community what are you willing to do, what are you willing to sacrifice, what are you willing to invest." Muhammad said.


Housing and the American Dream


"One of the things we see in the 20th into the 21st century is that a big part of the American Dream was owning your own home," Muhammad said.

Discrimination in housing has played a big part in making the American Dream feel more out of reach for marginalized groups. The National Fair Housing Alliance reports that from 1999 to 2011 nearly 10 thousand more discrimination complaints were filed. A peak was hit in 2008.

"There were always ways in which initially the law and practices by real estate agents and housing authorities said there are certain areas in which people of color, particularly African Americans, Jews and others will not be allowed to make purchases here," Muhammad said. "So even though they had the means to achieve that part of the American Dream, they were denied on racial grounds."

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that in the 2011 fiscal year, of the cases they filed, 46 percent of the complaints were about racial discrimination and 12 percent were based on discrimination by national origin.

Home ownership also becomes out of reach because of the cost of owning a home, a problem felt in Southeast Ohio.

"A whole society of people here can't afford to pay rent, let alone pay mortgages. And if you did have a house and things got bad that's the first thing you lost," Roberts said.

For Mason, the lack of housing almost ended her American Dream all together. In 2012 she secured enough grants and loans to return to Ohio University for her third year, but was unable to afford a place to live.

"To know that the only reason that I wouldn't be able to stay was because I didn't have somewhere to live, that devastated me," Mason said. "And I'm like, I just have to come home, there's no other way. I don't know what I'm going to do."

For two weeks Mason had to live in her car. Mason now lives in an off-campus apartment she pays for with the money she makes as a licensed hair stylist.


Christianity and the American Dream

Still some groups find that the American Dream is not worth pursuing. The pastor of Albany Baptist Church, Carl Prokop, says life is about so much more than a materialistic pursuit of the American Dream.

"I was a good student, I had a job, I was pursuing the American Dream, but I was empty," Prokop said. "And Christ was the thing that changed that emptiness to a fullness and really showed  me I didn't need to pursue the American Dream any longer."

Prokop is opposed to the focus on individualism in the American Dream.

"Scripture talks about the fact that I am to consider the needs of others above my own," Prokop said. "And that runs in contrast with the American Dream. The American Dream is really about the individual. It's about what I want."

Albany Baptist Church looks to respond to the needs of the local community by running their Basic Needs Center, which provides free food, clothing and other necessities to those in need around the area. 

Still other people of faith do not feel that the American Dream is and unworthy pursuit. Through the difficult time living in her car, Mason attributes her faith in God to helping her deal with that situation.

"God pulled me through," Mason said.

Mason still actively seeks to make her American Dream a reality, but hopes to use that dream to reach the people in the community she came from.

"I definitely plan to give back to the community and I want to be someone they can look up to," Mason said. "To know that it can be a reality for them. We all came from similar struggles so I feel like if I can make it [they] can make it."