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Is the American dream dead? An American scholar’s take on reaching the top

Robert Doar, president of the American Enterprise Institute, explains why it’s alive and well, though straining under the weight of heavy government

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The peddlers of doom and gloom have long touted America as a nation in decline. The idea of the American dream, they say, is more myth and mirage than reality. 

I am a firm believer that the American dream is alive and well, though it often strains under the weight of heavy government. My bigger concern, however, is that citizens are trying to hoist that weight with social capital muscles and community connective tissue that have atrophied from relying on the government instead of lifting each other. Upward mobility requires both supportive lift and individual effort. 

I sat down with American Enterprise Institute President Robert Doar for my “Therefore, what?” podcast recently to get his perspective on the American dream. Robert has been focused on upward mobility since he was young.

“I grew up in Brooklyn,” he says, “and my father ran an antipoverty program in one of the largest slums in the country. He was promoting business development and economic development and self-reliance and personal responsibility. But forces were arrayed against his efforts, and efforts like his. That was the sort of federal government top-down approach, very dependence-focused by putting people on assistance, not focused on work as much and more on entitlements.” 

Doar began his service in state government in 1995 in New York. “So in the world of social services, I have to admit … I am a former bureaucrat. … But I was always the first one to say, let’s make sure that we do things that make requirements ... for certain kinds of activity for people that were seeking assistance to help them get on the path toward employment and off of assistance. And that worked: poverty declined, work rates increased, upward mobility increased.”

I was reminded recently about the writing and research of Harvard economist Raj Chetty, which includes core factors that give rise to and provide supportive lift to anyone pursuing the American dream. Chetty focused on four key indicators for such opportunity: education, social capital, disciplined government and community investment. Salt Lake City, Utah, happens to be one of the most upwardly mobile places on the planet for these very reasons. Utah has room to improve, to be sure, but the state is model of what happens when a free-market economy and civil society are unleashed. 

Doar was quick to point out that, “Chetty’s first major report on upward mobility showed that the factor that led to the most upward mobility ... was the extent to which people lived in communities where a majority of the children were raised in two parent households.”

Clearly, strengthening home and family is vital to the vitality of the American dream.

Doar continued, “There is upward mobility all over America. We have a scholar, Michael Strain, who wrote a book called “The American Dream Is Not Dead,” and he’s right. We tend to get very cynical and down about the opportunities that do exist in America.”

Upward mobility and the ability to pursue individual and family dreams often gets stymied with programs that provide those in poverty exactly what people need to stay where they currently are economically.  

We both agreed that government clearly has a role in helping those who have fallen into poverty or who have been born into it. The role of government should be more in the model of Abraham Lincoln: “To lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the path of laudable pursuit for all, to provide all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” Robert added that he did have belief in effective government, not just government. 

Expectations also play a major role in believing in the kind of upward mobility central to obtaining the American dream. Robert shared his concern that, “People in America have been persuaded that equality is about equality of outcomes for everything. The United States is about equality before the law, and equality of opportunity. What happens after that? We’re going to have unequal outcomes. … There is this promise of an equal outcome, regardless of effort or regardless of talent or personal appeal. And I think that’s a promise we shouldn’t make, because the fact is individual effort does really matter.”

He finished by saying he has pursued this work around poverty, upward mobility and the American dream because, “I did not want to live in a country where people who were born at the very bottom remained stuck in the very bottom and the very bottom was awful.” 

Robert summarized AEI’s approach to the American dream as focused on “free markets, free people, limited government, strong American role in the world. ... free markets and individual liberty is what leads to the best outcomes for the most people. And we think that the history of the United States has, in some way, proven that.” 

Pandemics, social unrest and economic upheaval have caused many to question the veracity of the American dream. But the dream is alive, especially in places where education, family, social capital, disciplined government, equality of opportunity and community investment remain central to the way things work. 

Visions of a better life for self, loved-ones, family and friends need not be confined to the hours of midnight darkness. For every American, especially those who are struggling, that vision must be made tangible and real through good works, good neighbors, good policy and good government. Together, we can create confidence that every citizen might ride upward and forward on the wings of the American dream.