The American Dream: Fact or Fake

The following is a copy from my last English paper, a request from a couple people to read it. It’s only partially edited, but the content is there.

Have you ever stopped to think about the way that our society is actually structured today and how that affects our definition of “success”? Outside of the leadership hierarchy that literally leads and provides structure to our society, have you actually stopped to think about what forms our world philosophically and the anthropological effect that it actually has on people today? One of these mediums in through a social construct. You may be thinking, “What is a social construct, anyway?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a social construct is a concept or perception of something based on the collective views developed and maintained within a society or social group; a social phenomenon or convention originating within and cultivated by society or a particular social group, as opposed to existing inherently or naturally.” Both of these definitions are ideas that could precisely be applied to the way that society works today. There are many things today that we can all agree on that are actually social constructs, even though we may be unaware of them. For example, the idea of gender and how it is not linked to one’s sex, therefore, the implication and assumptions that come along with the physical makeup of one’s body do not have any correlation to one’s biological makeup. Any idea that has been pseudo-scientifically and culturally implemented into a society that lacks true contextual and objective evidence has the possibility of being considered a “social construct”, and what I would like to focus on here is the idea that the “American Dream” is one of the many victims of social constructivism.

The American Dream is an idea that has been a staple throughout American tradition and continues to perpetuate itself to this day. It has many facets of interpretation, but the general consensus of ideas relates it to the “rags to riches” story that view America is the land of opportunity and a promise of success for most people if they are willing to come here and simply work hard. I would like to propose an argument that, realistically speaking, the American Dream is a social construct because modern social factors such as poverty, and further gentrification, hinder the accessibility of the American Dream to a significant group of Americans — specifically those experiencing poverty and those who are geographically displaced because they are not wealthy.

Why is any of this information important to you? I say that the societal makeup and definition of success is ever-changing, especially for millennials who invest so much time and money into higher education and pursuing a career. Although this plan varies per individual, getting a higher education and finding a lucrative career field is, in fact, one of the very ways that people define the American Dream subjectively. Understanding what that means can give us a better understanding of the world around us. If we want to change the world and make it a better place, we have to focus on how practical and ethical action can be taken through the lens of diverse philosophical approach, and one way to do that is to first look at the effects of poverty in America.

When you hear the word “poverty,” what kind of ideas come to mind? Some people may think of a person experiencing homelessness on the street, begging for spare change, and/or just trying to find a warm and safe place to sleep for the night. You may think of those individuals who may not exactly be homeless, but live in a forsaken neighborhood in an urban area who meet the lethal wrath of high unemployment rates and lack of basic necessities in a family home. Poverty is all around us, and doesn’t even have a strict definition. For instance, you cannot tell one family that they are not actually “poor” just because they have slightly more resources or opportunities than the family next to them, ethically. However, this is exactly how income-based government assistance programs operate in order to provide a helping hand to those in need. Not only does the government have a difficult time trying to decipher who needs government aid and who does not, but quite frankly, the large scale of poverty in America today often goes unnoticed. Marge Scherer states in “Perspectives/ The Uphill Climb” that “Americans don’t have a clue about the extent of poverty or the degree of wealth around them,” in response to a video titled “Wealth Inequality in America.” This is exactly true, and this is exactly why poverty continues to be an issue — people who are not directly affected by homelessness, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, food, and an education, are not concerned about those who are experiencing these adversities. Think about it, the American Dream, in my opinion, does insinuate an independent, individualistic mindset. If you’re successful, living out your dream, and your life is going well, then why should you worry about your peer who just wasn’t as lucky as you? It’s not your fault that you were graced with this gift of success, you worked hard for it, probably all of your life, so why should you feel bad about how hard you have worked?

Is America being too harsh on the rich and asking too much of them to give up a slither of their wealth in efforts to aid those in need?

No. In fact, we aren’t being harsh enough. When it comes to the reason why the American Dream isn’t accessible to everyone, it’s because no one focuses their attention and help to where it is due, and this paradigm of the “American Dream” forces us to look the other way. We hear so much about wealth inequality, maybe a fact here and there, but the numbers and the facts are becoming more and more real and drastic as time goes on. For example, just three years ago in 2013, the Credit Suisse Research Institute reported that “the lower half of the global population possesses barely 1% of global wealth, while the richest 10% of adults own 86% of all wealth, and the top 1% account for 46% of the total.” (Sharrocks et al) How is that possible? The numbers are outrageous, and you could only imagine what they are like in 2016 — how is it possible that the smallest number of people on this Earth account for nearly half of this world’s wealth?

There are 7 billion people in the world, and 1% of that number owns nearly half of the money in the world.

What are these people doing with this money you might ask? They’re “hogging” it up, as one might say. They’re keeping it all to themselves, to their small families, their large corporations, and, believe it or not, they’re affecting policies and laws that directly affect poor Americans on a daily basis. How are they doing this? One way they’re doing it is with the help a friend named ALEC, formerly known as the American Legislative Exchange Council. This is an underground “lobbying” collective that consists of America’s top corporations and their CEOs who propose legislation in exchange for tax breaks in hopes that the lobbying costs are passed on to taxpayers. Corporations pass their legislative proposals on to active, participating legislators who then propose them as their own ideas to their home state to get them passed as actual laws.

You’ve probably never heard of ALEC, but this corporation is exposed in the critically- acclaimed political documentary “13th” written by Anna DuVernay and released in 2016. Not only is ALEC a real thing, but you should care because more than 98% of ALEC’s revenues come from sources other than legislative dues — these are the rich people and their corporations (“What Is ALEC?”). An issue that is rampant within the poor community, specifically the 27.4% of black people that make up the “poor” population (Economic Policy Institute), is the mass incarceration epidemic. The United Sates holds 5% of the world’s population, yet houses 25% of the world’s prisoners (Facts about the Mass Incarceration of People of Color in the U.S.) Not only are large corporations like Corrections Corporation of America profiting off of this tremendously disparaging fact, but 1 in 8 black men in their 20s is incarcerated, most for non-violent crimes. Not only are most of these black men poor, but how are you supposed to live out the American Dream when you are a single parent who probably has multiple kids, not only trying to raise them on your own, but provide for them food, shelter, and a decent education? Rich people directly contribute to the vicious cycle of poverty everyday by passing legislation that ensures the mass imprisonment of criminalized innocents because it puts more money into their pockets — keeping the rich people rich, and the poor people poor, out of reach of this “American Dream” .

In an attempt to get an updated opinion on what this American Dream means to millennials today, I took to social media to conduct an unofficial poll, and I also interviewed a 22-year-old individual who was asked the same questions as the poll, which can be accessed here:

Another key question that was asked was: Which concepts do you most associate with the American dream? Out of 28 responses, 25% said home ownership, 0% said starting a business, 11% said getting a good education, and 64% said the “rags to riches” paradigm in general. What was interesting here was the correlation between the public response and the private interview held with 22-year old Reggie Henderson. When asked which concept he most associated with the “American Dream”, Reggie’s response was:

Owning a home would probably have to be the most important, but the next would have to be starting a business. America is supposed to be the place of having the opportunity to succeed, and to me, owning a home, as well as starting a business, would be the best examples of that.

It’s interesting that Reggie shared that in his interview, because another roadblock to the accessibility of the American Dream is gentrification. Gentrification is the transformative process by which urban neighborhoods experience an influx of affluent residents, resulting in the displacement of lower-income families and small businesses as a result of increased property values. According to Peter Marcuse’s article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, gentrification is becoming an increasingly recognized social problem that many individuals are beginning to ethically confront. Think about it, someone has a dream of moving to New York, living life fabulously in the city specifically, take Brooklyn for example (“gentrification nation”) in a brownstone apartment, starting a family, and pursuing their career. If this individual sounds like you, have you considered how that would affect the neighborhood or the people who lived in that brownstone before you? Especially in my hometown of New York City, that “vintage” hipster apartment complex was once the home of a working-class, low-income family stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty, but booted out of their own home because they just couldn’t afford $2000/month for a one-bedroom apartment anymore.

Take my family, for instance; my aunt, her 2 children, and 3 grandchildren all lived in a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Manhattan that has been home for me and most of my family for as long as my grandmother can remember. It has always been her dream and my grandmothers dream to keep the house for several generations and to continue raising the family there, however, on top of my aunt’s medical bills for her fibromyalgia treatment and funeral expenses for my grandmother, she just couldn’t keep up with the exponentially increasing monthly rent. As the neighborhood around her began to renovate with fancy new hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers, the raising rent forced her and the entire family out of their beloved home, and whatever my aunt knew as her American Dream was crushed.

To my aunt it was real, and to many others in her situation, the American Dream holds some truth to this day, but why is there a disparity between the rich and the poor in terms of who has access to this “land of opportunity”? Poverty goes unlooked on a daily basis, and one of the avenues through which gentrification is fueled is through poverty.

So where do we get this idea of the American Dream from anyway? The social media poll tells us that most respondents feel as though the Declaration of Independence is a suitable precursor for the idea of the American Dream. According to the transcription of the Declaration of Independence, the first sentence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is exactly why people come to America. They come for a life that may be better than the one in their current situation, they come for freedom to do whatever they want as long as it does not harm others, and they come to pursue happiness, whether that be a great career, starting a business, getting a good education, or owning a home.

Despite these basic rights that are instilled in this document, I say that the American Dream is dead, and it is, in fact, a social construct that is systematically engrained into the minds of older generations and some millennials in order to maintain order, and ultimately, contain wealth. We see this static movement of wealth everyday as poverty, to me, is the number one inhibitor of access to the American Dream for everyone. These days you are not guaranteed your life if you are a young black male speaking out about the truth of police brutality or mass incarceration. Not only are you metaphorically bound by poverty from actually having the liberty to do what you want in America, but if you are a person of color and you are poor, you are significantly more likely to be physically bound in a jail cell as the mass incarceration epidemic continues to be fueled by rich corporations through ALEC. Finally, can you really pursue happiness in this country if America would rather have everyone who is not a rich, white male tossed into the black hole of the cycle of poverty; by incarcerating as many people of color as possible, limiting their resources such as food, shelter, and access to a good education which in turn leads to less people getting a college degree that will allow them to support themselves, their family, and to escape the economic tyranny?

The next time we try to preach to that new citizen of the United States the principles of this trumped up “American Dream”, I hope someone has the strength to understand that it is only but another figment of our imaginations.

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