By Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
When I was growing up there was a sense that if you were born
American, then you were in the land of opportunity. The American Dream was the
narcotic we all inhaled and fed to our children.
Collins Dictionary defines it as, "the notion that the
American social, economic, and political system makes success possible for
every individual." What wild, hopeful dreamers we were.
My family stepped from slavery, my mother believed that with
education there would be no obstacle her girl could not overcome, I married
someone who had traveled here to obtain an education that matched his talent,
an education he could not get in his home country. He stayed, the American
dream became his.
David Camp, in a brilliant Vanity Fair article in 2009, Rethinking the American Dream, expressed the fear that the American
dream has morphed from a desire to live well, to consumerist greed. " It was freedom from want, not freedom to want--a
world away from the idea that the patriotic thing to do in tough times is go
Now it seems every public holiday whether Memorial Day or
Thanksgiving has a shopping extravaganza attached to it in the form of sales,
that's why, the national psyche appears to believe we get to stay at home on
these days of remembrance to go shopping, to buy more of that which we don't
Jason Deparle in
the International Herald Tribune notes however, that the American
dream is a myth, "Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in
Canada and much of Western Europe." He quotes a study by Markus Jantti, a
Swedish economist who "found that 42 percent of American men raised in the
bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults"(Denmark 25 percent, Britain 30
percent). Just eight percent of Americans at the bottom rose to the top fifth,
which compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.
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Other factors that
led to greater difficulty to move out of poverty here included more children
raised by single mothers, "uniquely high incarceration rates," "pay in America
tilts heavily toward those who have" education and "access to better schools."
Deparle quotes research that notes: "The United States is less unionized than
many of its peers, which may lead to lower wages among the least skilled."
But there are
other ways that we can see the dream has become corrupted:
* In 2010, the Institute for Policy Studies in
a report The Massive
CEO Rewards for Tax Dodging noted "The gap between
chief executive compensation and average U.S. worker pay rose from a ratio of
263-to-1 in 2009 to 325-to-1 in 2010. "
* The United States is
the third most productive economy in the world (behind Taiwan and Sweden) but
at a significant cost; from 1979 to 2000, married couples with children
increased their working hours on average by around 16 percent or almost 500
hours per year, according to Running
Faster to Stay in Place: The growth of family work hours and incomes,
the America Foundation,
Those hours have increased since the 2008 economic crisis and many employees
are resorting to medications to help them cope, which in turn is seeing
unprecedented prescription drug addiction.
* Professor Stephen
Cohen, a lecturer in tax law at Georgetown University notes that this translates
to fewer hours to care for children, clean the house and relax. He says that, " inflation
adjustments that make the data from different years comparable do not seem to
adequately reflect increases in the cost of housing, which is the largest
single expenditure for most households. According to a study by Robert H.
Frank, the median earner, who had to work 41.5 hours monthly to pay for a home
in 1970, had to work 67.5 hours monthly to pay for an equivalent home in 2000."
* Cohen points to the Central Intelligence
Agency World Factbook note that the Gini co-efficient, the measure of
inequality in a society is higher in the United States, "thus evidencing more
income inequality -- than for any other industrialized country" The CIA's Gini
coefficient for the United States is 0.450 (2007), compared, for example, with
0.270 for Germany (2006), 0.327 for France (2008), 0.247 for Hungary (2009),
0.320 for Italy (2006), 0.376 for Japan (2008), and 0.340 for the United
* And Professor Juliet Schor,
a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard has observed: "Americans are
literally working themselves to death--as jobs contribute to heart disease,
hypertension, gastric problems, depression, exhaustion, and a variety of other
ailments. Surprisingly, the high-powered jobs are not the most dangerous. The
most stressful workplaces are the "electronic sweatshops" and assembly lines
where a demanding pace is coupled with virtually no individual discretion"
According to sleep researchers, studies point to a "sleep deficit"
among Americans " the number of people showing up at sleep disorder clinics
with serious problems has skyrocketed""
Camp observes that, " In his 1958 book The
a best-seller, [John Kenneth] Galbraith posited that
America had reached an almost unsurpassable and unsustainable degree of mass
affluence because the average family owned a home, one car, and one TV. In
pursuing these goals, Galbraith said, Americans had lost a sense of their
priorities, focusing on consumerism at the expense of public-sector needs like
parks, schools, and infrastructure maintenance. At the same time, they had lost
their parents' Depression-era sense of thrift, blithely taking out personal
loans or enrolling in installment plans to buy their cars and refrigerators."
And by 1986 President Reagan added $1
trillion to the national debt, and the United States, formerly the world's
biggest creditor nation, became the world's biggest debtor nation. In
succumbing to greed we've lost our way, the dream has gone, as we grasp after
more our capacity to attain it flees.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is an environmental consultant who when working for the Environmental Protection Agency as a senior executive discovered dangerous mining conditions in South Africa conducted by a U.S. multinational. When she raised the issue (more...