If you’re willing to work hard, you can be successful and build a good life for you and your family. That’s what millions of Americans have believed for generations. But is it still true?
Our film Two American Families chronicles the Stanleys and the Neumans of Milwaukee as they struggle for two decades to make ends meet — only to fall further behind. It’s a familiar story to so many Americans over the past two decades.
What’s happening to the American Dream?
FRONTLINE teamed up with Moyers & Company to ask our online community what the American Dream means today, and how it’s changed.
Some of you told us that the American Dream remains a beacon of hope, but many more told us they believe that the dream is dead.
Then there are those of you somewhere in the middle, who believe the dream is still alive — but needs a lot of work.
What do you think? And what’s your story of getting by in the new American economy?
Here are some thoughts that caught our attention. And be sure to read a special note on the reaction to Two American Families from filmmaker Tom Casciato.
The American Dream Has Become Just Getting By:
Nancy Fellenz The American Dream used to be a home in the suburbs, a good job, raising your family. Now we have been relegated to survival mode.
Wednesday at 1:53am
Chris Murray If I can make to the end of my life without having to live out of a shopping cart, I'll call it a success. I'm honestly not joking and I have a law degree.
Tuesday at 7:49pm via mobile
Chuck Baginksi The American dream is to someday get a job that pays enough to pay off your student loans before you die.
Tuesday at 7:20pm via mobile
John Manager To me, there isn't much of one. After three years out of work, I'm just focused on survival. Got no time or money for dreams.
Tuesday at 6:51pm via mobile
Steve Vogt The American Dream now means to simply have a job and to be out of debt. Simple as that.
Tuesday at 6:45pm
Jan Smith I think at one time the American dream meant having a place to call your own, get a house paid for, have a job you liked, transportation, take a vacation now and then. Those things didn't seem so out of reach. Now it's about survival. I worry constantly the car will break down or anything at all will go wrong to prevent me paying the bills. And many people worry if they will eat or have a roof over their head at all. The American dream has been stolen.
Tuesday at 6:36pm
The American Dream Is Just A Delusion:
Willie Fuchs WOW!! What a wake up call for America! This was an amazing documentary. It reminds me of similar stories of what Americans experienced during and after the 1929 depression. John Steinbeck's, “Grapes of Wrath”, reflects much of what this documentary portrayed. Both families reflect the continuous battle which working class Americans deal with year in and year out. The American dream, for many families such as these two, has become the American nightmare. The promises by politicians, corporations, and the religious communities have been unfulfilled and replaced with more lies. The rich continue to get richer, while the working class bear the burden of bad business decisions, corporate greed, and the same old lies spouted by politicians. We can and do become victims of our illusions of the “American Dream.”
Wednesday at 1:26pm
Karel Van Horn-Seldner The “American Dream” was never more than an ideological carrot waved in front of the working class. I would say this carrot waving was partially responsible for the recession - look at all those folks who got sucked into a sub prime mortgage, trying to secure their “American dream house.”
Tuesday at 7:17pm
Deborah Elston The American Dream to me includes a healthy, hard-working, supported middle class. Unfortunately, this is gone. We now live in a time of CEOs making millions while the workers lose benefits, pensions and jobs. I am a college grad who will never attain what my parents did - both of whom did not even finish high school. Never in a million years did I think I would live to see the decimation of the American middle class and yet, that day has arrived...
Tuesday at 6:34pm
The American Dream Is Alive (But It Might Need Work):
Jasper Bloodsworth To me the American Dream is the ever hopeful future. Something to keep loving and trying for. To me it isn't changing as much as it is going through real tough times.
Tuesday at 6:31pm
Raul Perez The American Dream is to me give my kids a better life than I had when I was growing up. I grew up on minimum wage and lunch tickets. Now I am a homeowner and a Navy Veteran that doesn't take anything for granted.
Tuesday at 8:42pm via mobile
Wesley Ratko The concept of an American dream means meritocracy, where hard work and perseverance can mean financial success without the necessity of connections or a family name. I still believe in that, but I think it's harder now than it ever has been. It's under fire now from wealthy people who want to take as much as possible for themselves, without any consideration about the long term consequences of a diminished middle class. Greed is destroying the American Dream.
Tuesday at 6:55pm via mobile
A Note from Two American Families filmmaker, Tom Casciato
The reaction to Kathleen Hughes’ and my film, Two American Families, has been extremely gratifying. Thoughtful reviews in The New Yorker, Salon, The Guardian, Variety and The Nation made it clear that people were moved by the stories of the Neumanns and the Stanleys. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the families, we have learned, is how unremarkable their stories are to so many Americans who have lived these past two decades under the same circumstances. In fact, the most moving response I’ve seen was posted by a blogger I had never heard of at a site called penny prudence.com. She wrote of watching the film:
“At times I cried such that I could not speak. Why? Because Frontline could have filmed our family in Detroit, over the same period of time, and much of the story would have been the same … I was three-years-old the first time I saw my grandparents come through our back door with groceries … To this day, I can see the motion they make as the door pushes open, what they are wearing, what their glasses look like, how happy they are to see me standing there waiting for them. I ask ‘Grandma! Grandpa! Why do you have groceries?!’ and my grandfather, setting them on the kitchen table before picking me up, says ‘We accidentally bought too many and they’ll go bad!’ I knew, even then, that it wasn’t true, that my grandparents would never do such a thing, and that it meant things were bad – really bad. I knew this in a deep sense without really having the vocabulary to describe it.”
The comments shared in this post about the state of the American Dream — like the stories of the Neumanns and Stanleys — speak both to the economic difficulties ordinary Americans face, and the resilience with which they face them.
What is the American dream?
A unitary definition does not exist–the American dream probably has a different meaning to every US citizen. For some it is the dream of freedom and equality, for others it is the dream of a fulfilled life or even the dream of fame and wealth.
In general, the American dream can be defined as being the opportunity and freedom for all citizens to achieve their goals and become rich and famous if only they work hard enough.
History of the American dream
The first settlers hoped for freedom of religion; in their home countries they had been persecuted because of their religious and political views. Bad living conditions in Europe and the hope for better living standards in America attracted more and more settlers to migrate to the new world. The booming US industry during the first half of the 20th century caused the myth “from rags to riches”.
The American dream today
Today’s role of the American dream is a matter of discussion. Some think that the American dream is still a viable element today, for others it is only an illusion.
The American dream focusses on the success of the individuum (not the wellbeing of the whole population). On the one hand, this has advantages, e.g. lower taxes, little interference of the state. On the other hand, the same advantages are disadvantageous for society: there is no social fond for the poor and there is no serious interest in important issues like environmental protection etc.
Discussions on the American dream
The American dream is often a topic for essays or debates. The questions raised are usually:
- Is the American dream still alive?
- Is the American dream still working?
- Is the American dream still worth pursuing?
If you have to comment on one of these questions, you should first give ‘your’ definition of the American dream. (You already know that there is no unitary definition, so your readers/listeners need to know what exactly you are applying to.) To what conclusion you come in the end is a matter of your own political views–there is no right or wrong here. It’s always good, however, if you try to understand both sites. The following thoughts might be useful when talking/writing about the American dream:
- Do all US citizens have equal opportunities or are there still conflicts concerning the origin or believes of certain groups?
- If we say that everyone can become rich if they work hard enough–does that mean that the poor are only too lazy? (Or do we have to take other factors into account, too?)
- Why does it have to be the “American dream”? Wouldn’t the same dream be possible in other countries?
- What makes so many people want to live in the United States?
- If you had the choice, how would you decide: take the opportunity to become rich and successful thanks to low taxes or pay higher taxes from which the jobless can benefit (you might be jobless as well one day, but not necessarily)?
- What are the advantages / disadvantages (for the individuum and society) if people only try to pursue their very own dreams?
- See also topics in our writing section:
- General Information on Writing English Texts
- Comments (Stating your Opinion)
- General Information on Spoken Texts
Literature on the American dream
- The great Gatsby, novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Death of a Salesman, play by Arthur Miller