Proof The American Dream Doesn’t Exist For Most Poor People

April V. Taylor

According to the ideology we are sold about the American Dream, America is supposed to be a country of limitless opportunity where any person, no matter what their socioeconomic status, can work hard enough and based on their own individual merit accomplish anything they want to.  According to this ideology, a person gets out of life what they put into it based on their own innate ability, hard work, attitude, moral character and integrity.  It all sounds great, but in reality, the ideology of the American Dream is turning out to be more of a myth than a tangible reality for most poor people.  In other words, America is not a meritocracy or a land of equal opportunity.  The meritocracy myth, as it has come to be known, is defined as the gap in the way that the system distributes resources, specifically wealth and income, according to the merit of a person.  The impact of merit on economic outcomes is drastically overestimated by the ideology of the American dream, and there are a number of socioeconomic factors that suppress, neutralize or even negate the impact of merit on upward mobility.

A recent blog in the Washington Post points out calculations done by economists Greg Duncan and Richard Nurnane that show that high-income parents spent 151 percent more on enrichment activities for their children between 1972 and 2006.  This spending only rose by 57 percent for low-income parents.  Affluence also impacts the amount of time parents are able to spend talking to their children, with affluent parents spending an average of three more hours a week talking to their children which can have a major impact during formative early years.  Meritocracy can lend itself to an educational arms race in which poor kids are faced with several hurdles that they are incapable of making up for just their sheer will, effort and determination.

A new paper from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill points out that even when poor children do everything right, their success is not much better than affluent kids who do everything wrong.  The following chart illustrates this point:


Statistics have also shown that rich kids who drop out of high school are just as likely to remain at the top of the economic ladder (14 percent) as poor college graduates are to stay stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder (16 percent).  How is this possible?  The existence of glass floors and glass ceilings means that rich kids have more connections to good paying jobs, many times within a family owned business.  The type of colleges rich and poor kids attend are also different, with affluent parents being able to provide their children with legacy college admissions while poor students are more likely to attend schools that are more like diploma mills that saddle them with more debt than opportunity.

The playing field is not level, and these recent statistics show that it is not just race that makes the American Dream an illusion for the vast majority of Americans; it is also about class.  All Americans deserve a level playing field based on their efforts, and if it is not possible to create a meritocracy, we need to stop selling our children the illusion of the American Dream when the reality of the American economy means that the dream is more myth than reality for many.



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