This past week, the New York Times released a new poll revealing Americans' pessimism about the state of the economy six years after the start of the 2008 financial crisis. An article accompanying the survey proclaimed one of the biggest takeaways: "The poll…found that only 64 percent of respondents said they still believed in the American Dream. Even near the depth of the financial crisis in early 2009, 72 percent of Americans still believed that hard work could result in riches." So according to the Times, the idea that hard work can lead to wealth is what the American Dream is all about. Trouble is, that view is not quite right.
Today, AEI is launching a new e-book, "Is the American Dream Alive? Examining Americans' Attitudes," which looks at decades of public opinion on the American Dream. Among the topics covered are Americans' level of belief in the Dream, opportunities for the next generation, achieving success, and demographic differences.
One of the first topics examined in the book is the very definition of the American Dream, which is rather difficult to determine. The concept of the American Dream is a complex one. It is, as the Wall Street Journal wrote in 1987, "intensely personal," with the Dream meaning different things to different people.
The public opinion polling examined for the book reveals that Americans would not exactly agree with the Times' assessment of the Dream's definition. Yes, Americans do believe that hard work is very important to achieving the American Dream. A September 2013 poll from the Washington Post and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans say that "being rewarded for hard work" is what the American Dream is all about.
But what is that reward? Hard to say. The New York Times assumes that reward is riches, based on their own new poll's question wording. But wealth is not part of most Americans' views of the Dream. The 2013 Post-Miller Center survey found that just 29 percent of Americans believe that becoming wealthy is at the heart of what the American Dream means–the lowest response from the list of options given.
The only item on the list that scored higher than being rewarded for hard work was "to have freedom of choice in how to live one's life," an answer given by three-quarters of respondents. So for most Americans, achieving the American Dream is much more about having the ability and mobility to live their lives as they see fit than about having a lot of money and things.
You can read the full AEI e-book here.