In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond first championed the notion that geography has had a profound influence on the distribution of human wealth.
Now, in the appropriately titled report “Is the American Dream Alive or Dead,” the Economic Innovation Group demonstrates that the American reality of today can be described along the same lines.
Which is a scary notion.
But, unfortunately, is backed by data.
Who Should Read “Is the American Dream Alive or Dead? It Depends on Where You Look”? And Why?
Whether you believe in the American dream or not, this article is certainly a wakeup call – for the latter to see their fears validated by the available data, and for the former to realize that, even if still alive, it’s all but a nightmare for millions.
About the Economic Innovation Group
The Economic Innovation Group (EIG) is a bipartisan public policy organization founded half a decade ago with the mission “to advance solutions that empower entrepreneurs and investors to forge a more dynamic economy throughout America.”
To do that, EIG combines research and data-driven approaches to thoroughly examine some of the most pressing economic challenges facing the United States.
The organization considers itself “a leading voice in bringing geographic inequality into the national conversation.”
“Is the American Dream Alive or Dead? It Depends on Where You Look PDF Summary”
Ever since being both invented and overused ad nauseam by Horatio Alger Jr. in the second half of the 19th century, the nature and the reality of the American Dream have been explored by a host of great American writers in some of USA’s essential works of literature.
However, whether it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” or Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” or Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – these books all seem to have in common a profound distrust in Alger’s vision, neatly summed up in George Carlin’s famous quip: “it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
Well, many still do, George: if you work hard enough – they think – you can reach the top of the ladder, no matter how many steps you need to climb on the way to there.
In EIG’s report “Is the American Dream Alive or Dead?”, we learn that things are not as pink.
On the contrary, in fact: the American Dream is unequivocally at risk, since “more than half of all U.S. counties [exert] a negative impact on children’s future earnings.”
You heard that right:
Basically half of America can only sleep through the American Dream!
Because they live in the wrong counties.
Place matters. While many like to think of the United States as a country where anyone willing to work hard can succeed, the reality for many is more complicated. The American Dream lies far out of reach for young people across much of the country not due to any individual shortcomings, but due to the unique mix of social, cultural, and economic forces at work in their communities—forces that condition and affect, if not always determine, lifetime outcomes.
Based on data coming from 2,869 US counties, EIG has discovered that “economic prosperity and economic mobility are positively and meaningfully correlated.”
Meaning: upward mobility is possible in prosperous counties, but unlikely in the poor ones which suffer from high rates of inequality as well!
The ratio is staggering:
Three out of five children under the age of 18 (so, 60% of underage Americans) live in counties where the American Dream is all but a nightmare.
If the American Dream is a “twofold promise of prosperity and mobility,” then “neither is in good health,” since both promises are alive and well in only 420 (i.e., one-seventh) of the examined counties. These are mostly located on the East Coast and the metropolitan areas on the West Coast, as well as the upper and the industrial Midwest and Texas.
The Southeast, on the other hand, and the remote desert Southwest (populated by Native Americans), abounds in counties in which the American Dream is merely a distant prospect.
Most of the counties have less than 100,000 people, “but altogether 14.5 million Americans live in these corners effectively vacated by the American Dream.”
In between these extremes, EIG analyzes two more groups of counties: such where mobility is possible, but the upward move doesn’t mean prosperity as well (the American dream is within reach) and such which are prosperous, but immobile (the American dream is fenced off).
The American Dream is fenced off in 28% of USA’s prosperous counties where 47.5 million Americans live in wild inequality.
On the other hand, the American dream is within reach against the odds for about 1.4 million Americans living in the few counties “that are still able to reconcile distress with mobility.”
If the American Dream is to become more accessible, the country needs a more geographically inclusive pattern of growth, and it needs to tackle the determinants of mobility at their roots, neighborhood by neighborhood, at the same time.
Key Lessons from “Is the American Dream Alive or Dead? It Depends on Where You Look”
1. The American Dream Is a Twofold Promise of Prosperity and Mobility
2. The Four States of the American Dream
3. The Stats Behind the American Dream
The American Dream Is a Twofold Promise of Prosperity and Mobility
By definition, the American Dream promises two things: that if you work hard, you’ll be able to move up the social ladder and become rich.
EIG’s report studies the data of almost 3,000 counties to see in which condition is the American Dream in relation to these two promises.
The Four States of the American Dream
After studying the data, EIG then categorizes each county in one of the four possible categories: prosperous and mobile counties (the American Dream is alive and well), prosperous and immobile (the American Dream is fenced off), distressed and mobile (the American Dream is within reach) and distressed and immobile (the American Dream is a distant prospect).
The Stats Behind the American Dream
Overall, over 60 percent of Americans under the age of 18 are growing up in counties which are geographically and environmentally incapable of fostering economic mobility.
The American dream is alive and well in 72% of USA’s prosperous countries examined by EIG (about 71 million people), mostly located in the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains.
The rest 28% (which encompass 47.5 million people) lack policies capable of translating prosperity into mobility and are, thus, fencing off the American Dream from many dreamers.
Against the odds, about 10% of America’s distressed counties (only 1.4 million people) still manage to foster upward mobility, rendering the American Dream within reach.
However, for the rest of the Americans living in USA’s poor counties (14.5 million), the American Dream is merely a distant prospect.
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“Is the American Dream Alive or Dead? It Depends on Where You Look Quotes”
Our Critical Review
The concluding sentence of EIG’s report may be the most important you’ll read this year if you still believe in the American Dream or, at least, in some things such as compassion and humanity:
The American Dream does indeed exist; our task is to expand its reach.
We’ll just leave it at that.