More Americans Giving Up On The American Dream

An ABC/Yahoo News poll reveals that almost half of Americans no longer believe one can get ahead in the United States through hard. Los Angeles Times Columnist Gregory Rodriguez worries that giving up on that dream "challenges the very idea of ourselves as a nation."

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, it's the Opinion Page: The American dream. Broadly defined, it's the belief that if we work hard, we'll get ahead, that things will be better for our kids. And you can argue that more than democracy, more than anything, really, our collective belief in that dream both defines us as a nation and binds us together.

Now, a new ABC/Yahoo News poll reports that only half of us believe it. Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez writes: With the glue of the dream holding at 50 percent, it's nothing to cheer about. And if that number falls further, it could pose as great a menace as any outside enemy.

So how do you define the American dream, and has it changed? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. You can find a link to his column as well there. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Columnist Gregory Rodriguez, also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, with us today from NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you back in the program.

Mr. GREGORY RODRIGUEZ (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): Oh, thanks, as always, for having me.

CONAN: And the American dream, we hear, you know, work hard, get ahead, the kids - what did it mean in your family? How did that manifest?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: In my family, huh? I think it meant exactly that. It meant that my generation would be better than my parents. I don't know if that actually came about but it's - I think different families interpret it in different ways, and it's this vague notion of betterment over time. And different generations, actually, reinterpret it. Some people see it as a spiritual aspect, life - better lived. Some people see it as a material concept of life better lived materially, bigger houses, bigger cars.

But I think over time, we're going to have to recalibrate what it means, what the American dream means if we're going to stay together as a nation.

CONAN: Why is it the thing that require - the glue, as you call it, why is it that?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, I mean, if you imagine sort of freedom being sort of the ideological force behind the American experiment and democracy, lets say its the operating system, then the source of the glue, the social cohesion is that dream. It's what really - as if we're - whatever indignities we may be suffering at any given moment, we'll put it aside. We won't resort to violence. We won't give up hope. We won't, sort of, lead to the behavior that'll shatter a society because we hope that things will get better.

The great diversity of this country has always struggled with, we couldve done worse over time if people hadn't had that sense of moving forward. I think it's that - it's the one thing that takes this hyper-individualism, these millions of competing separate dreams and puts them together in a collective enterprise. It is, as I see it, the glue - and it is really odd, actually, when you think about it, this amazing nation, this extraordinary powerful nation that rests upon this nebulous, ephemeral notion that things will get better, whatever that means.

CONAN: And better for us individually and better for us collectively.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, absolutely. And I think - but oddly, I think it's a very -that's what, again, youre pointing out something really interesting. It's a very personal thing, that dream, but it's what connects our personal dreams with, again, the collective enterprise.

CONAN: And it's interesting, you note in your column that this is not necessarily connected with the great recession.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, exactly. I think the numbers and the poll that you cited may indeed be about widening inequality and joblessness. But what I found interesting, that you could start to see this before the great recession. In 2006 CNN poll, you start to see people saying, oh, well, maybe this dream isn't achievable.

And even more importantly, in the booming '90s, another poll seemed to indicate that, wait a second, Americans didn't think it was achievable, that the dream was less achievable than it had been 10 years prior and was - and they projected that it was going to be more difficult as time went on.

Now, that may be simply a function of subjectivity, of people reinterpreting the dream. And Greg Easterbrook(ph) wrote in an article that it wasn't enough in the '90s to keep up with the Joneses, that somehow you had to get better than the Joneses. So we - it was the dream on hyper-drive that made it untenable.

CONAN: And it's interesting. Again, as you look at the inside, some of the numbers in this most recent poll, as you might suspect, those who are better off, those who are college educated tend to be those who think the American dream is still alive. While those - Gregory, can you hear me?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I just lost you.

CONAN: Okay. There we go. I was saying, there are some demographic differences. That those who are better educated, those who are better off think that the American dream still is alive.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. I mean, but what's interesting about that data is, the first data is like, okay, yes, better educated, higher income believe in dream. That seems to make sense. But underneath all the data - and I wish it were better - it wasn't really disaggregated, but that non-whites are still bigger believers in the dream than whites. We don't who what means because the pollsters hadn't, in fact, give the data. Maybe we can get to it later.

But maybe that - again, maybe that comes from a different set of expectations. And we do seem to know that the immigrant experience still has the American, that there is the ability to go up. It doesn't mean they're getting to the middle class in any fast way. But there does seemed to be the ability to jump significantly in one's own eyes, in one's own trajectory from the certain poverty of arrival to a certain - even lower - even working class, the lower and middle class status. So the American dream exists on some levels.

But the questions is, will it exists for the middle? And if doesn't, how do we recalibrate it? And what do we do to keep from tearing each other part, because there does seemed to be some frame. I mean, as I say in the column, in the end, I think the center is holding, enough people believe in the dream. But the incivility that we're seeing, the fractiousness of our political life, the nativism that we're seeing right now - it's a very angry country. But yet, the anger has not spilled into a sort of violence thatll tear the fabric of the country, yet.

CONAN: And as you point out, tarring and feathering is an expression. It didn't use to be.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, you know, I was whining and - boning and whining several months ago about the terrible columns, the comments in newspapers and particularly against my column.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: And some colleague in New York reminded me, you know, tarred and feathered is just a metaphor nowadays. A couple hundred years ago, people did it in reality. And I don't know why, but that made me feel better.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We're talking with Gregory Rodriguez about the American dream. What does it mean to you? How do you define it? What does it mean in your family?

We'll start with Wendy(ph) and Wendy with us from Atlanta.

WENDY (Caller): Hi. I just had a comment. I was really surprised to hear that the statistics are showing that whites who are better educated are feeling more like the dream is still alive. Ive had the opposite experience that, you know, we were always brought up in my family, were a very multicultural family and that if you work hard, if you do the right thing, if you care about each other and you're respectful and you care about the environment, everything will work out. You'll improve your circumstances and those of other people. And its just not panned out.

I think I feel more akin to the children of the '60s and the great disillusionment they wound up having with the kind of flower child movement than people in my own generation because I did all of the right things. I worked in high school. I went to college. I worked hard. I made great grades. I got full scholarships. And I am 35 years old and not able to find employment where I can afford to pay my mortgage. So it's very like, I feel very disillusioned with America and the American ideals where you almost feel lost and like you grew up in a culture where you were just kind of fed a load of malarkey and lied to. It's almost like when you find out that Santa Claus doesnt really exist.

CONAN: Hmm. That's a sad statement, Wendy. To some degree, the - obviously, different people defined it differently, but in the '60s, a lot of that was a rejection of crass materialism and - that was available, however, they just chose to reject it. In your case, saying doing all the hard work and it's simply not there, the promises have been broken. That is something different and that's a little more dispiriting, I think.

WENDY: It is. And I find that a lot of my kind of compatriots, people who grew up in similar family circumstances, who grew up in similar educational environments are all kind of feeling the same way, that a lot of them did all the right things. They, you know, quote, unquote, "correct things." They made the right decisions. They were good to other people. And then they find that they're lost or that the opportunities that they expected to be there are not there. And it's - it is, it's very sad to see that reflect - it could just be the area that we live in and...

CONAN: Sure.

WENDY: The state of Georgia, of course, is not doing very well as far as employment goes. But it is very sad to have a higher education and you come from a particular background and...

CONAN: And let me just bring Gregory in here. I think what she's saying is exactly why it is corrosive when that number goes down.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Precisely. Precisely. She's getting at the heart of it, the disillusionment, the sense of being lied to, the sense that it doesn't pay to play - what she said - do the right things. And what do people do when the feel that it no longer pays off to do the right thing? They no longer do the right thing. And those are the type of behaviors, the type of sort of angry voting, the type of - sort of dismantling the system you don't - no longer believe in. This is precisely pointing to the potential dangers when enough people don't believe.

This is - again, this is - we tend to just treat the dream as some sort of a trope. It is. It's a cliche. But how can this country be based on this really nebulous notion that's so personal and intimate? And she actually compared it to Santa Claus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: And yet, it's powerful, as we can see. And so the fear is that enough people will - will feel lied to, will lose their faith in government and, therefore, be - and then behave in ways that are not - that do not contribute to the cohesion of the nation.

CONAN: So are you studying anarchism, Wendy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

WENDY: Well, not quite. As a matter of fact, it's funny that you brought that up because those are the discussions that my husband and I have had together, that so often people - for instance, you think about - and of course, thank God it's not this bad, but Nazi Germany, how does something like that happen? How does a group of people, in any capacity, have any inklings that some of those atrocities were going on and not get together and rally and say, we will not stand for this?

How far - how bad do things have to get? How disillusioned do people have to be? What circumstances have to be in place? And it's really interesting, I come from a psychological background, and in every freshman psychology class that talks about the studies where, you know, oh, these group of people pretend to be inmates and these group of people pretend...

CONAN: Oh, right, yes, that famous experiment, yeah.

WENDY: Exactly. And of course, all of the freshmen say, that would never happen nowadays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WENDY: We would never have that happen. Or, you know, the studies where they thought they were shocking someone to death...

CONAN: Right.

WENDY: ...oh, that would never happen nowadays. But, yes, it would, in the right set of circumstances, yes, you would. You would shock someone to death just because somebody told you to. You would. With the right circumstances, you would. And that's very frightening because you would like this - I would like to think of myself as caring. I would like to think of myself as altruistic, of, you know, having a good sense of community and love for my fellow people just because they are my fellow people. But when do you get to a circumstance where you stop feeling that way because you feel like you are in a position where your whole focus of your being is just surviving?

CONAN: Wendy, we wish you the best of luck. Thank you very much for the phone call.

WENDY: Thank you.

CONAN: On the Opinion Page this week, we're talking with Gregory Rodriguez. He wrote the column in today's Los Angeles Times, "The American Dream: Is it Slipping Away?" You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Kevin(ph), Kevin with us from Coopersville in Michigan.

KEVIN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Kevin.

KEVIN: Hi. I just wanted to make a quick comment. I graduated about a year and a half from college, so the dream is kind of going away for me. I havent been able to find work. I'm, like, I've been married for a little over a year. I'd like to be able to have kids, pass the dream onto them but it's, like I said, without being able to even afford to have kids, it just seems harder and harder.

CONAN: And so, would you - do you have faith that with hard work, if you can find it, things will be better for you and your kids?

KEVIN: I'm hoping so I work everyday to find a job, but I made more money 10 years ago before I even went to college. It's like I make less money now than after I spent $30,000 on college. So I'm...

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: May I ask a question?

CONAN: Go ahead.

KEVIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Kevin, I mean, what does it mean then to be an American if that dream doesn't - if you don't believe in it? What does it mean?

KEVIN: Not really sure what it means. Id like to hope that it can still come true. I mean, I suppose it could mean that everything is totally different and you just have to try to find away to get along. But I'd like to think that growing up, you think back in the '50s and '60s you even just get a high school education you can still get a good job and afford a house and mortgage payments and family but, like I said, even with a college education, it's pretty unattainable. Maybe it's just because I live in Michigan when...

CONAN: Things are very tough in Michigan, as you obviously know better than I do, Kevin, but...

KEVIN: Yeah.

CONAN: We wish you the best of luck, Kevin.

KEVIN: All right. Thanks, bye.

CONAN: Thanks for the call. Here's an email from Lisa(ph). I see the American dream in Oprah Winfrey. Look at what she was able to do, where she came from and where she is now. Also, the Arnold Schwarzenegger story - came to the country with no language, with a goal to make movies. Not only did he do that, he married into a large political family, now the head of a state. The American dream is the ability to be able to do what you want to work for. And that's part of it, too.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I would say, though, as a Californian that our governor is downwardly mobile at this point.

CONAN: Well, the American dream has a higher popularity rating than he does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: A little editorializing there.

CONAN: Jonathan(ph) in Connecticut writes: I'd argue smart, not hard work, pays off. The man who makes 10 times what I make doesnt work 10 times as hard. I wonder if this American dream perpetuates the growing division between the haves and the have-nots, or rather - let me ask you, Gregory Rodriguez, whether the lack of faith reflects the growing gap between the wealthy and everybody else.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I don't think it's a reflection. I dont think the gap is a reflection of the lack of faith. But I - and the gap itself isn't necessarily the problem in and of itself. It's the gap and widening gap and the inability and the belief that you can't close that gap. So it's not inequality in and of itself, it's the belief that inequality is simply not conquerable. And that's when things start - and beliefs start to corrode.

CONAN: And getting back to your family, you're a columnist, you work at a think-thank, you're doing pretty well. Your parents are, I'm sure, proud of you.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Oh, well, thank you. I'm sure they are. But, you know, to make it personal, I grew up in a house, and my parents were teachers. I don't usually talk about these things. My parents were teachers in the 1960s, L.A. Unified School District and the L.A. Community College District and they bought a house that I would never be able to afford on a teacher's salary.

So, to a certain extent, as a Southern Californian, as a suburban Southern Californian, I was very conscious that I was downwardly mobile, at least economically, from a very early age. But again, on a personal level, I think I recalibrated that what I wanted was not to have my parents' jobs, and I wanted more freedom. And so, did I achieve a dream, in some sense, that my parents didn't? Yes. And their stability, I think, allowed me to be a useless intellectual type. But, yes, I was very conscious of being downwardly mobile at a very young age.

CONAN: Look, the newspaper business, it's going to take off any day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Gregory Rodriguez, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Gregory Rodriguez writes a column for The Los Angeles Times. He's also a senior fellow at the new America Foundation. There's a link to his column at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. With us today from Culver City, California, and the studios of NPR West.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.