By Kyoko Takenaka for the Investigative Reporting Workshop

Scott Kelmer, 40, was recently laid off and has returned to school to continue his technical studies. He says he still believes the American Dream is attainable, but is becoming more difficult to achieve.

American Dreams shift in weak economy

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 

This story is being co-published with New America Media.

BALTIMORE — Derrick McLaughlin, 43, a real estate agent in Baltimore, remembers the first time he heard of the American Dream. It was when his grandmother, an immigrant from Trinidad, bought her first house in Brooklyn, N.Y., after decades of saving. That was the moment when she believed she had attained her American Dream, she told him. “You would’ve thought it was a mansion from the way she talked about it,” McLaughlin recalls, noting that she likely would never have been able to buy a house in her home country. “The idea of the American Dream is what got her to leave Trinidad” as a woman with young children, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin believes his grandmother’s experience was emblematic of what the American Dream used to be — not an important event to everyone, but momentous for her. As for himself, he says, “I’m maybe at the three-quarter’s mark,” of achieving the American Dream. “I have the things as a kid that I thought I wanted,” but added that “the American Dream changes based on where you are in your life.”

McLaughlin was part of a recent research study on the American Dream conducted by the Investigative Reporting Workshop. For the 17 men and women interviewed, the American Dream continues to resonate. But that dream is tinged with caveats, doubts and hesitations.

Home ownership, a decent quality of life and social advancement through hard work were central to the group’s definition of the dream. Financial success is as crucial as opportunity or freedom, participants said. While optimistic about their own prospects, many said they feared for the country and for future generations.

The men and women, all from the Baltimore area, ranged in age from college students to retirees, and included low-income to upper-income participants, as well as a mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds. (See methodology.)

A matter of definition

Though most people interviewed said that the American Dream is individually defined, their responses shared common themes. These include the ability to own a home, the pursuit of education, an eventual payoff in professional success and financial security from hard work, an agreement that the dream is usually achieved later in life, and the ideal of leaving descendants better off than in themselves. There seemed to be divergent interpretations: People reported both that achieving the dream meant meeting the modest goals of living comfortably, but also that it meant becoming wealthy.

Scott Kelmer, 40, who was recently laid off from his contractor job with Verizon, said, “Everyone in the world wants to come to America,” reinforcing the group’s belief that people immigrating to this country can still “make it” through hard work and education. “Part of the dream is to be on top, and helping people while you’re there,” said Gregory Parson, 23, a pre-med student in Baltimore.

This idea was shared by a number of American University students polled in a related study, with more than half saying that the dream held more value for people outside the United States than for those already here. 

First hearing about the American Dream

Not surprisingly, the current economic chaos has affected the dream.

Long-serving politicians and corporations are “balancing their checkbook on the backs of the middle class,” said McLaughlin, making it far more difficult to pursue the opportunities believed to be available in this country.


Photo by Kyoko Takenaka for the Investigative Reporting Workshop

“Part of the dream is to be on top, and helping people while you’re there,” said Gregory Parson, 23, a pre-med student.

Most participants agreed that this is particularly true for young people. It has become significantly harder for younger people to achieve the American Dream than in generations past, several said. “I want to move out of my parents’ house. I want my own house and I want to put my own family in it,” Parson said. But, he added, that is out of reach. He is committed to becoming a doctor, he said, but worries about taking on thousands in dollars in student loans to do it.

Though the youngest in the group, Parson said he had already achieved the American Dream, because “I’ve had opportunity, which is what it is about.” He said he that once he becomes a doctor, he hopes he will be able to help others achieve their own dreams.

The men and women interviewed are full of frustration with the current political and economic system. But few have a sense of what can be done to help things turn around. And immediate economic needs are pushing bigger concerns to the side. 

“All I can do is help where I can help. My first responsibility is to my family,” said Paul Drgos, 36, a computer programmer and recently divorced father of three.

Parson said he felt a sense of duty in helping the country recover from the recession but was unable to articulate what he might personally be able to do: “I feel responsible for having to fix it, but I don’t feel responsible for having caused it,” he said. “I feel thrown into it.”

Signs of improvement are few

“I’m doing OK, but I deal with people who aren’t doing OK every day,” said McLaughlin. The economic situation is unlikely to turn around until the nation can form a better-functioning government, “or until the American people get to the point that Occupy Wall Street becomes Occupy America,” he said.

Only one person interviewed said the nation’s financial situation would improve within the next year. Many peg it at a two- to five-year recovery, although Kelmer thinks it could take as long as a decade. For their personal situations, however, people are generally more optimistic, believing their lives will improve within the next year or two.

National outlook on American youths' future reaches its lowest point

The numbers for optimistic and pessimistic outlooks have reversed since polling began in 1983.

Source: 2011 Gallup poll
Graphic by Alissa Scheller, Investigative Reporting Workshop

This attitude was particularly prevalent among the better-educated or more affluent members of the group, who had a sunnier outlook about the time needed for both the general economy and their personal situation to improve. Decades of Gallup polls support these findings, showing that Americans typically have a more negative outlook for the nation but a stable and positive one regarding their personal situation. Since the economic recession in 2007, the differences in these views have only increased.

In keeping with this attitude, some participants have been able to turn national and personal misfortune to their advantage through home ownership. Drgos said that he managed to avoid the burden of a home worth less than its market value, because his ex-wife received the house after their divorce settlement. One young woman bought a house for less money than she had originally planned because of depressed housing prices in the Baltimore area. McLaughlin’s business as a real estate broker has thrived for the same reason, as he is able to purchase homes below market value, refurbish and resell them.

Achieving the dream

For most participants, the dream is still a work in progress. The younger people generally said that they were on the path to achieving their dreams, though a few people reported that they are genuinely struggling to make ends meet. The retirees in the group said they have achieved the American Dream, though not always in the manner they had hoped. One man had planned to travel the world in his retirement, but that is no longer possible.

Those shifting expectations — and making peace with them — may be a key to securing the dream. With an economy still staggering after the recession’s official end, the new American Dream may be just having enough, not having it all.

Despite the uncertainty and readjustments, the American Dream still has meaning, McLaughlin said: “We’re in trouble the day people stop thinking they can attain that.”

Two focus groups were conducted in Baltimore on Monday, Nov. 28, 2011. Each group included eight to nine participants. One group included individuals who can be considered lower-middle class (based on income and household size) while the other can be considered upper-middle class. Both groups included a mix of genders, ages and ethnicities.

The group discussions were led by a professional moderator and each lasted 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Focus groups are a qualitative research methodology used to explore attitudes, motivations and beliefs in-depth among a group of people.

To ensure open, honest opinions, the focus group participants were not told what organization was conducting the research, and participants were guaranteed that the discussion would be kept confidential. However, afterward the participants were asked if they would be willing to speak with a reporter and have a follow-up interview, during which time they were also asked to give their permission to quote from their focus group session as well as from the interview.

What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


Back Story

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Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.