Is the American dream a reward for hard work or an unfulfilled promise?

Darcy Reeder
Jun 29 · 6 min read
Statue of Liberty Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

“Never in a million years did I think I would stand on a stage like this,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in her closing remarks at the first Democratic debate for the 2020 presidential election. “I had a dream growing up. And my dream was to be a public school teacher. By the time I graduated from high school, my family — my family didn’t have the money for a college application, much less a chance for me to go to college.”

Warren wasn’t the only candidate to assure the debate audience she knows what it’s like to be poor.

“And I’ll tell you this: I live in a low-income black and brown community.” — Sen. Cory Booker

“I am the one that doesn’t have a political machine, that doesn’t come from money.” — Sen. Amy Klobuchar

“And I know what it’s like to struggle. I know what it’s like to rent a home and to worry about whether you’re going to be able to pay the rent at the first of the month.” — former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro

Like Taylor Swift getting fro-yo on the cover of a grocery story checkout magazine, the message is clear: Candidates — They’re just like us.

Except, they’re not.

Warren and her husband have between $4 million and $11 million. Yes, she’s calling for policies to combat income inequality. But she also may literally be part of the 1 percent.

US presidents are rich. Adjusted for inflation, all but 9 presidents were millionaires at some point in their lives, including, of course, our current president, the wealthiest of all.

The rest of us? One-quarter of families earned less than $25,000 in 2018, and 37 percent had income under $40,000. While politicians with millions of dollars in investments tell us they understand, 39 percent of Americans are unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense.

So why do so many candidates — with law degrees and six-or-more-digit incomes — play up their low-income credentials?

They’re painting us a picture of the American dream.

Republicans and Democrats are both talking about the American dream, but the journey to realizing this dream sounds very different, based on who’s doing the telling.

For Republicans, the rags to riches narrative props up the fantasy of the self-made American dream. It’s an excuse for capitalism. I came from way down there, and look at me now. If you work hard, the system works. If it’s not working, blame immigrants.

Democrats are also invoking the American dream fantasy, but as a collective call to action. The American dream should be for everyone, so it’s a reason for more equality, more social safety nets, more government programs that help lift people up.

At a campaign stop in 2012, President Obama spoke about the many people and systems that contribute to any one person’s success:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.”

Immediately, Republicans lashed out at the suggestion that they weren’t all self-made. In response, they themed the first day of their 2012 Republican National Convention We Built That.

Obama’s message— success or failure is not just a result of how hard one works — touched a nerve with Republicans who refused to acknowledge their privilege. If you admit hard work isn’t enough, that capitalism doesn’t work for the majority of people, then you need to change the system. And since the system privileged these Republicans, they instead held on to We Built That.

In 2015, Pew asked Democrats and Republicans at different income levels whether “federal government should play a major role in helping people get out of poverty.” Unsurprisingly, Democrats were much more likely to answer yes (78% of low-income respondents, 68% of high-income).

With Republicans however, personal economic experience greatly shaped their answer. 53% of low-income Republicans said yes to federal poverty-reduction policy. But for high-income Republicans, only 24% answered yes.

President Donald Trump is a clear example of the Republican We Built That mentality. Trump has never been poor, or even middle-class, but that hasn’t stopped him from repeating the narrative that he’s self-made, for decades now.

“Rich men are less likely to like me,” Trump said in a 1990 Playboy interview. “But the working man likes me because he knows I worked hard and didn’t inherit what I’ve built.”

Thanks to reporting by the New York Times, we now know Trump received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire, starting when he was a toddler.

But that’s not a good story, is it? That doesn’t evoke the American dream.

Trump was never low-income, so instead, he imagines himself as low-income and tells us how he would’ve escaped poverty:

“The coal miner gets black lung disease, his son gets it, then his son,” he said in that same Playboy interview. “If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination ― or whatever ― to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it.’”


Meanwhile, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are speaking out, that there’s no shame in utilizing a government that works for all of us.

Castro says he and his brother Rep. Joaquin Castro got into Stanford because of affirmative action. “I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action because I’ve seen it work in my own life.”

Warren says she got where she is because of a $50 per semester commuter college. “That was a little slice of government that created some opportunity for a girl. And it opened my life.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio also spoke during the debate about the American dream, through a progressive lens. “For all the American citizens out there who feel you’re falling behind or feel the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn’t do that to you. The big corporations did that to you. The 1 percent did that to you.”

When Sen. Kamala Harris called out former VP Joe Biden for trying to stand in the way of integration, she spoke about the difference federally mandated busing made in her own life. “So I will tell you that, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders is once again calling for a progressive, democratic socialist platform, so the American dream can come true for everyone. “My mother’s dream was to move out of that small apartment into a home of our own,” Sanders said when he announced his candidacy 4 years ago. “She died young, and her dream was never fulfilled. As a kid I learned, in many, many ways, every day, what lack of money means to a family, and that is a lesson I have never forgotten and never will.”

Many of the candidates want you to believe they know what it’s like to struggle with poverty. Possibly some of them really do.

This attention to poverty, and to solutions that work for everyone — all races, ages, and genders; citizens and non-citizens — might actually invigorate voters enough to elect a progressive Democrat in 2020.

In how many debates have we heard middle class repeated over and over, with no recognition of all the Americans who struggle just to survive? Bernie’s been talking about these issues for a long time, and now other candidates are joining in.

Maybe we really can affect positive change. Maybe we don’t need to roll our eyes anymore at the phrase American dream.

Darcy Reeder

Written by

Empathy for the win! Top Writer— Essays on Feminism, Culture, Relationships, Sexuality, Veganism, Politics, and Parenting. ko-fi.com/darcyreeder She/her.

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