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The decline of the American dream



There are many social ideals that have been passed from generation to generation, but arguably the strongest and most sought-after ideal is the American dream. In reality, the American dream has become a financial promise of the past, and the hope it once brought has started to vanish from those who once clung to it.

Investopedia defines the American dream as “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. The American dream is believed to be achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance.” If you ask any American what the American dream is, they will tell you something similar to this. With Investopedia’s vision of the American dream, anything is possible through hard work and sacrifice, but recent data shows that this is not true for many Americans.

Although the American dream purports to provide equal opportunity for success for all, the truth is that one’s social class has a dramatic impact on their expected education, career opportunities, and lifetime earnings. This is due to several factors, including race, gender, ZIP code, and the education of their parents. However, the greatest predictor of wealth might be the availability of opportunities.


For millions of North Carolinians, opportunities like affordable education and healthcare, owning a home, being debt-free, and even working a job they love are not forthcoming. This is especially true for low-income families who often grew up in poverty and will continue to live in poverty due to lack of resources. In an age where higher education is necessary to work most high-paying jobs, these individuals find themselves left behind to work the low-paying jobs most others don’t want.


Although many universities are beginning to make higher education more accessible to everyone, quality education is still hard to come by. A survey on poor families and higher education by the Pew Research Center found that there has only been an 8 percent increase in enrolled undergraduates from lower-income backgrounds from 12 percent in 1996 to 20 percent in 2016. This slow growth highlights one of the major issues of poverty: higher education is unaffordable. Although universities are doing more to provide scholarships and accommodations to those who could otherwise not afford to attend, progress has been slow, and awareness of these programs limited.


Low-income families, however, are not alone in feeling the impact of the decline of the American dream. COVID has forced many middle-class families to the verge of poverty. While the majority of American’s struggled financially, the rich minority has continued to prosper.


An article in the Harvard Gazette noted, “The American dream has sort of shifted from one in which the economic growth of the nation was shared more across the income distribution, where the growth rate of the income of those at the bottom quartile was about the same, if not more, than the growth at the top quartile. And today it’s not that way at all: the bottom quartile isn’t going anywhere, and the top is going rapidly up.”


Although the original American dream is declining into obscurity, many low-income families are still finding hope and help in their communities. Community action agencies across the country are working tirelessly to give these families the opportunities they need to escape poverty and pursue their dreams. Community action programs range from Head Start programs which help children prepare for school while providing free daycare to working parents, to job training, housing and transportation assistance, moral support and guidance, and more.


The American dream may not be possible for all, but now is our opportunity to make our own American dream, whether that dream is to prevent our grandchildren from experiencing poverty or becoming TikTok famous, or to obtain your dream job. People can find a way to succeed when given the opportunity.

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