“It’s like the American dream in reverse.” That’s how President Barack Obama, ten days after taking office last year, described the plight of Americans hit by the faltering economy. His catchy description fell short — the dream has turned into a nightmare for tens of millions.
So much so that an opinion poll this week showed that 43 percent of those surveyed thought that “the American Dream” is a thing of the past. It “once held true” but no longer does. Only half the country believes the dream “still exists,” according to the poll, commissioned by ABC News and Yahoo against a background of dismal statistics on growing poverty, inequality, unemployment, and Americans without health insurance.
Before turning to the gloomy numbers, a brief detour to the meaning of the phrase “the American Dream,” long a familiar part of the U.S. (and international) lexicon. The survey defined it as “if you work hard, you get ahead.” That’s neat shorthand for the concept that the American social, economic and political system makes success possible for everyone.
More expansive definitions of the American Dream invariably feature home ownership, and there the dream went into reverse on a particularly large scale, with the subprime mortgage boom and subsequent housing bust. Last year alone, there were 2.8 million foreclosures — 7,700 a day — on homes whose owners could no longer afford their mortgages.
The statistic that best explains growing doubts over the achievability of the American Dream was released by the Census Bureau in mid-September. In 2009, the Bureau said, 3.8 million people joined the ranks of the poor by falling below the poverty line, defined by the government as an annual income of below $22,000 for a family of four.