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Perspective: The American dream isn’t just about money

When we talk about achieving the American dream, we rarely mention the kind of family structure that is most conducive to economic success

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

What is the American dream? Traditionally, the idea was that your children end up better off than you are. Achieving that intergenerational social mobility required that parents work hard, often at menial jobs, so that their kids could get a higher level of education and a better paying job.

But what if this formula is missing some variables? This is one of the questions raised by Allegra Goodman’s new coming-of-age novel “Sam,” which is enjoying widespread acclaim.

The book follows the development of a girl named Sam from childhood through adolescence and into early adulthood. She is the product of Courtney and Mitchell, but Courtney is the one raising her. Mitchell has a history of substance abuse and possible mental illness and comes in and out of her life without warning. Sam also has a younger brother, Noah, who has a different father, Jack. Jack doesn’t live with them either.

Sam’s childhood is characterized in equal parts by a heroic mother and a variety of boys and men who don’t always have her best interests in mind. Courtney works two jobs and scrimps and saves so that her children can have a decent home, enough food, and are able to play hockey or go rock climbing. She struggles to get enough sleep, care for Noah (who has some behavioral problems) and drive her children to the places they need to go — all familiar problems for many single mothers.

Courtney is also trying to ensure that her children have healthy relationships with their respective fathers, but that is not always possible. All the while, she wants to ensure that Sam does not make the same mistakes she does, that she finishes college — unlike Courtney, who dropped out when she was pregnant. 

Aside from getting Sam on the pill and warning her about a predatory climbing instructor, Courtney offers Sam very little in the way of advice about dating or marriage or raising a family. Maybe she is just offering an example of what not to do. But the arrangement also offers Sam little guidance about the role that a husband or father is supposed to play in a family. And she has no one to protect her from the men who mean her harm.

When she does finally find someone who cares about her, the two dismiss the idea of marriage as unnecessary, a relic of old-fashioned religion. Sam eventually finds her way to college and it’s possible that she will succeed in finding a career that she enjoys and that pays her better than her mother’s work. But it’s also possible she won’t. After all, plenty of people who go to college never finish (even if they don’t have to drop out because of a pregnancy). And even those who do finish often end up working in jobs that didn’t really require a degree in the first place. These factors, combined with student loan debt, may mean that college does not always result in economic stability. 

But her string of relationships does not bode well for her economic future either. Marriage before having kids is a really important factor in avoiding poverty, and there is no evidence that Sam will not simply follow her mother’s example. These days women are waiting longer to get pregnant but the share of children born to single mothers continues to tick up. All things being equal, it is better not to be a teen mother, but even older single mothers struggle to bring financial stability to their children’s lives. Having one income, one parent to care for children, one parent to bring kids to the places they need to go, one parent to stay home when kids are sick, and so on — it all makes things harder.

It is curious then, that when we talk about achieving the American dream, we rarely mention the kind of family structure that is most conducive to economic success. It’s not just making more money. Courtney never gets a moment to relax. She cannot even enjoy her children’s success, let alone get a good night’s sleep. Even as she grows older, she will still have a child who will probably need her help. Will she ever get to retire or even take a vacation?

Of course, “Sam” is fiction, but Goodman’s portrayal of a girl growing up in this all-too-common family situation is so compelling that it invites us to examine the kinds of messages we are sending young people about the best way to create a happy, successful life. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.