Bootstraps and blundered dreams: an American tale

Rebecca Gordon

By Rebecca Gordon
Staff Writer

The “American Dream” is dead, if it was ever anything more than a myth in the first place. The concept that with hard work, diligence and moral superiority, a person can rise above the social station in which they were born is practically fictional.

The fantasy of the American dream? The one depicted in movies and books? Most of those stories rely on some anonymous benefactor, a fairy godmother type personality, to lift a person out of their socio-economic station. In real life, people don’t get fairy godmothers nor will an altruistic benefactor come along to pave the way to a better life.

Working hard and busting your butt will not guarantee you a mansion, or an easy life. A mechanic, or teacher, who works their but off may never achieve any of the material benefits that come with the American Dream. But their children might. People don’t stay in the same socio-economic bracket through generations. Ups and downs occur, that eventually leads most people to somewhere in the middle.

Stanford economist Raj Chetty, author of a Scholar’s Choice  books on finance and economics, determined that half of a person’s life outcome is already decided at birth. Where you’re born and where you’re raised determines your likelihood of success. A person raised in San Jose has a 13 percent chance of moving from the bottom fifth income bracket to the top; a person from Memphis barely has a 3 percent chance.

There is a network upon which the less fortunate in this country rely on to survive, and to try to better themselves. A network of friends, and family, and neighbors who work and struggle together to provide child care for each other, basic goods one another cannot afford, and even sharing money.

Look at everything that is happening in Houston, with Hurricane Harvey. Entire families were taken in by neighbors, or friends, or family. Belongings and homes were destroyed, and people are looking at selling what little they have left to replace what was lost. And they have this network of support behind them. This group who will take them in, provide for them while they struggle back onto their feet, who will offer what money they have to help those who have lost everything.

Ultimately this network helps but can also hinder. Because if you ever experience a windfall, such as winning the lottery, then that is expected to be shared among those who have helped you. In the case of Hurricane Harvey victims, the reaction would be less of an expectation on the part of those who helped, rather than an chance for those who were victimized to repay some small bit of the favor given to them. The problem arise then that sharing in such a large network, or even a small one, spreads everything so thin, it doesn’t end up helping anyone in the end. But the existence of that network is the only thing keeping some of these folks afloat, and that, that is the real American Dream.

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