The American Dream is an American Lie

I’ve been thinking about the American Dream, about the idea that hard work and determination are all you need to succeed in this country. It’s a load of crap. If you are born poor or sick or into the wrong neighborhood, you start your life with a deficit that’s damn near impossible to overcome. Americans are sold the myths of self sufficiency and hard work. It’s so ingrained in our consciousness that even people who’ve been handed everything like to talk about how hard they worked to achieve success.

Witness Brett Kavanaugh crying at his confirmation hearing as he talked about how he “worked his tail off” to succeed. He had more support from an early age than most of us can imagine. A person like Kavanaugh would have to work pretty hard to fail. America is designed to keep people in their place and Kavanaugh was born and raised in a privileged, cushy place. No wonder he cried when his status was threatened. He couldn’t imagine a world where he didn’t get everything he wanted. That world does not exist for people like Kavanaugh.

When I first got out of college and started working, I was poor. By definition, I lived below the poverty line. I earned next to nothing, though my job as a newspaper reporter required a college degree. I lived in one of the poorest and most oppressed areas in the nation, which was a blessing; rent was cheap. Still, there were months when  paying all my bills meant that I might go a week or more without any spare cash. I often pumped a dollar’s worth of gas into my truck and prayed it would be enough to get me through to payday. I didn’t cry about it. I ate a lot of generic soup and canned spaghetti. 

I didn’t talk about my financial woes with most of my friends, because I was ashamed to have so little. Many of them seemed to have more spending money than I did. I assumed it was because they had better jobs or were better with their finances. I assumed it was because I was failing and they were succeeding. 

Years later, I would learn the truth. These friends weren’t more successful than I was, but they had help that I didn’t have. For years after college, their parents paid their rent or a portion of it. Some of them had parents who paid their credit card bills. No wonder they had extra cash. Once, at a party, a guy declared that all parents should support their children financially until at least age 25. I protested. Many parents don’t have that option, I argued. My parents didn’t have that option. He was incredulous. He couldn’t believe I was paying my own bills at 21. Actually, I corrected him, I was 20.

Our current president likes to sell the myth of himself as a savvy businessman who succeeded through hard work and cunning. As most of us already know and as was confirmed this week by the incredibly thorough New York Times investigation, this is just one more lie in a string of lies. The president didn’t take a one million dollar loan from his father and turn it into a fortune; the president actually received more than $400 million dollars from his father, much of it transferred illegally and as a means to avoid taxes. The president has probably lost more money than he’s earned, but when you’re starting with that sort of parental subsidy you can’t really go broke. 

Look, my parents sent me to college. That’s more than their parents did for them and it’s more than many parents are able to do. So I benefited from a generous parental subsidy. I am so grateful for it. I can’t imagine how I’d have managed to get through college without any help from my family, but people do. And when those people graduate, they are often saddled with loads of debt and no safety net. The American Dream is so much closer when you can just call home for help. It seems horribly out of reach when you are truly on your own. I don’t begrudge anyone who seeks to help their children, but let’s not pretend that the young adult who pays her own way has the same chances and opportunities as the one who is still relying on financial assistance from her parents at age 30.

The truth is, most of the really powerful and successful people in the country today benefited from an enormous amount of financial assistance from their family or from legacy college admissions or from connections they made because they happened to be born in a particular neighborhood. It’s insulting to point to the rest of us and suggest that all we need to do is work a little harder and we can have what they have. Hard work is not enough and it never has been. 

We need to start demanding the truth from people peddling the myth of the self-made man or woman. We need to stop telling young people that all it takes is hard work and determination to make it in America. We need to stop shaming people who need a little help and who can’t get that help by calling home. Let’s do away with the dangerous myth of self-sufficiency.

Until we stop perpetuating the idea of the American Dream, we will remain a nation of inequality where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class holds its collective breath and tries not to fall. We deserve a better dream than that.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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2 thoughts on “The American Dream is an American Lie”

  1. A damn fine article, Tiffany. Thoroughly agree. I’m tired of the poor being vilified and scapegoated. Good work.

  2. A great conversation starter (or continuer, really). I’ve been thinking about just this question the past few days, after a taxi driver in Rome started off our short trip to the Roman ruins (a funny thing really did happen on the way to the Forum…) with the question: Is the American Dream still alive?

    I agree with the thrust of your argument, but not necessarily with your stark conclusion. It’s a matter of degree. I think there are still plenty of examples of people — immigrants, certainly (and this is the group among whom the hope of the AD is particularly vibrant) — who have had the opportunity to make their lives and their children’s lives significantly better, because of their hard work and the rewards that America (more than most other countries) provides for that work. Does that mean anyone can attain the same heights as those, like me, who have benefitted from immense white privilege and parental subsidies? With relatively few exceptions (that are over-emphasized by many, particularly the conservative Right), the answer is no. And you are absolutely right that for some oppressed or heavily disadvantaged subpopulations, the social and economic barriers are huge and too much is expected of mere humans to justify the mean-spirited dismissal of their work ethics or their inherent abilities. But the American Dream is an ideal that inspires, gives hope, and serves as part of what defines America to Americans and to the rest of the world. Like many other imperfectly realized ideals of our national identity (democracy, equal treatment under the law, etc.), we must continually strive for the “more perfect Union” our founders envisioned and that has animated progressive political movements throughout our history. To suggest the American Dream does not exist at all invites a different, and perhaps less desirable, reactions.

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Tiffany Quay Tyson