Answers can be found if we believe in the dream

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 22, 2004

Commentary by Bill Brown

Whatever the American Dream is, a significant number of citizens don’t think they are living it. Yet they remain optimistic that the American Dream is achievable.

Those are snippets from a survey I ran across the other day. It was conducted by the National League of Cities. Americans across the country were questioned in August, and the results were released in September in a report entitled The American Dream in 2004: A Survey of the American People.

Email newsletter signup

The NLC claims more than 1,700 cities as members as well as 49 municipal leagues whose membership totals more than 18,000 cities. The Alabama League of Municipalities is a member.

We all have our own vision of the American dream, but, according to the survey, financial security seems to be a key ingredient for most people.

When people were asked to define the American Dream, the top five unprompted responses were being financially secure; having a good job/career; living in freedom; having a family; and living comfortably.

When they were asked to choose from a list of definitions, the top five responses were living in freedom; being financially secure; having a family; having a quality education for children; and enjoying good health.

The most significant barriers to obtaining the American Dream, the survey reported, were poor quality public education and financial insecurity. Those with the highest education and income levels were the most likely to cite poor public education as an obstacle.

More than a third of Americans – about 71 million adults – feel passed-over and believe they are not living the American Dream, according to the survey.

“The feeling that the American Dream is becoming more elusive is not isolated to those who perceive themselves as being left behind,” the report on the survey said. “A solid majority of Americans agree that the ‘American Dream is becoming more difficult for the average person to obtain’ (67 percent), that ‘It is becoming much harder for young families to achieve’ (70 percent), and that ‘the distribution of wealth in the country is

basically unfair’ (60 percent).”

Still, roughly two-thirds of Americans believe that the American Dream is achievable for all or most people in the country, and two-thirds believe they personally are living the American Dream. And majorities in every demographic, geographic and political sub-group are confident that their children will have a fair shot at the American Dream.

“A solid majority of all Americans (72 percent) believe that the government should actively work to help people achieve the American Dream,” the report said. “Yet almost half (45 percent) believe the government has actually done more to hinder their pursuit of the American Dream than help. This is an 11 percent increase since 2001.”

As you would expect, opinions vary with age, gender, economic status, and race. I’ve touched on only a few of the findings, but you can find the entire survey report at

The NLC said it was releasing the survey report in this election season in hopes that it would stimulate discussion by political candidates of the issues raised.

From what I have seen, candidates may occasionally touch on some of the American Dream issues, but it is always from behind sharply drawn partisan lines.

If a third of Americans feel that they’ve been passed over, it ought to merit some serious discussion and dialogue without the usual certitude of the zealots of the left and right.

Let me suggest a couple of topics to include in that discussion:

What kind of life should people who are willing to work be able to expect? Say they are people without much in the way of education or who are not endowed with a high IQ? Should they be able to buy a home? Support a family? Take an occasional vacation trip? Retire with some degree of dignity?

Should access to medical care really depend on having a job? What about the person who wants to work but whose job has disappeared? Or the person who is working but whose job doesn’t offer health benefits? (I will make a bold prediction here: Within the next couple of decades, Americans will have some form of universal health care. It won’t come about because of altruism. It will come because the people who run the nation’s businesses will figure out that universal health care is better for their bottom lines than

the escalating cost of providing insurance for their employees.

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I believe that it is possible and necessary to find answers if we believe that the American Dream belongs to all of us.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at

(c)2004 William B. Brown