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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We have just experienced over the Memorial Day weekend classic images of Americana: baseball, backyard barbeques, small town parades, and people waving Old Glory. Those images speak to national values like freedom and community, and evoke something many aspire to: the American dream.

This summer we're taking a look at that concept, what it means and why it matters, and we're calling this series American Dreams. NPR's Ari Shapiro has our first story.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Three years after the deepest recession in almost a century, the American dream now feels in jeopardy to many people. The small town of Lorain, Ohio used to embody this dream. It was a place where you could get a good job, raise a family, and comfortably retire. John Beribak grew up here.

JOHN BERIBAK: Now you can see what it is. Nothing. The shipyards are gone. The Ford Plant's gone. The steel plant's gone. Hoping to bring it back.

SHAPIRO: What does it feel like to have lived here your whole life and have watched that decline?

BERIBAK: Sad. It really is. I mean I grew up across the street from the steel plant when there was 15,000 people working there. My dad worked there. I worked there when I got out of the Air Force. It's just sad.

SHAPIRO: The American Dream is an implicit contract that if you work hard, you'll move ahead. Play by the rules, the contract says, and children will grow up to have a better life than their parents. This faith is almost uniquely American, says Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: When you look at European countries, when Germans or French are asked the same questions about whether it's within all of our power to get ahead, or whether our success is really determined by forces outside our control, most say no, success is really beyond our control.

SHAPIRO: And in the wake of the recession, that sentiment is now growing in this country. Linden Strandberg and his wife recently visited the Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington.

LINDEN STRANDBERG: I think the American dream for the average man doesn't exist anymore.

SHAPIRO: The Strandberg family story has been repeated millions of times in this century. His parents immigrated from Sweden in the 1920s for economic opportunity. Linden grew up and worked at the phone company in Chicago for 35 years.

STRANDBERG: I wasn't smart enough to go to college, so I wanted to get a steady job with decent pay. And with my overtime and that, I was able to buy a house, take trips to Europe, and visit relatives there. I don't think a young person, woman or man, coming out of high school now could ever achieve that.

SHAPIRO: This sense that the contract is threatened intrigued political scientist John Kenneth White of Catholic University. He edited a collection of essays called "The American Dream in the 21st Century."

JOHN KENNETH WHITE: What we've got now is we have a lack of confidence by many Americans in the future of the country.

SHAPIRO: The economy alone is not the reason. In fact, the American dream flowered at a time when the economy was at its worst.

WHITE: If you go back to the Great Depression, where the American dream originated as a concept, strikingly enough, there was still hope and optimism about the future, that the future would be better than the past.

SHAPIRO: In 1931, an author named James Adam wrote a book with the working title "The American Dream." Ultimately it was retitled "The Epic of America." But historians say that book marked the American dream's emergence into the spotlight. The underlying themes had been bubbling up through the American psyche for much longer than that. In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald opened his iconic novel "The Great Gatsby" with these lines...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.

SHAPIRO: The American motifs of growth and opportunity even stretch as far back as the constitutional convention, says political scientist White.

WHITE: The chair in which Washington sat had a sun. And the question was asked, is it rising or setting, and the framers answered that question by saying it's a rising sun.

SHAPIRO: At that time, the American dream was not available to everyone in this country. Black people were kept as slaves. Women were not allowed to vote or own property. The story of the 20th century is one of the American dream gradually being extended to more and more of the population.

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SHAPIRO: In 1942, Aaron Copland, a gay Jewish son of immigrants, captured the expansive optimism of the American dream in his "Fanfare for the Common Man."

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SHAPIRO: Six years later, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson expressed her faith that blacks will move on up a little higher. The single became an overnight sensation - the best-selling gospel record to date.

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MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Gonna walk and never get tired, gonna fly and never falter. I'm gonna move up a little higher...

SHAPIRO: In 2009, President Barack Obama looked back across those decades as he took the oath of office. He described his inauguration as a fulfillment of the American dream.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

SHAPIRO: While Barack Obama embodies the American dream in a powerful and specific way, this is a theme that every president and would-be president adopts in some fashion. Mitt Romney talks on the campaign trail about how his father grew up poor.

MITT ROMNEY: Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of a state where he once sold paint from the trunk of his car.

SHAPIRO: It's a universal phrase in domestic politics - only in America. The question today is whether the phrase still applies, whether hard work and dedication still guarantee success. Michael Dimock of Pew says polling evidence suggests that belief in the American dream is faltering, especially among the poor.

DIMOCK: Lower income whites and lower income African-Americans are more skeptical about the American dream. Higher income blacks are pretty optimistic about the American dream, as are higher income whites.

SHAPIRO: Well, this sounds really cynical then, that the only people who believe in the American dream, or the people who are most likely to believe in the American dream, are the people who have attained it.

DIMOCK: Well, I think there's a certain truth to that. There are people struggling, and what you're seeing, especially right now, are people who feel like they played the game the right way, like they did what they were supposed to do, that the rules they thought they could play by and be OK have changed on them somehow.

SHAPIRO: Economic statistics validate those feelings that the rules have changed. According to the census bureau, a typical man working full time made ten percent less money last year than he did a decade ago. The question for this country is, can the dream be restored, and if it can't, what does that mean for who we as Americans are? Or as the poet Langston Hughes put it, what happens to a dream deferred?

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: And as part of our series, we want to know what the American dream means to you. So surprise us with words and with pictures if you like. Go to npr.org/dreams to find out how.

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