Graphic by Alissa Scheller, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Young people optimistic they can achieve American Dream

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 

“And so we understood that what we were fighting for was an America where everybody had a fair shot, everybody did their fair share; that responsibility was rewarded and that the game wasn’t fixed, that it wasn’t rigged, and that if people did the right thing and worked hard, as so many families who in Iowa and throughout the country — that they were going to be able to live out a piece of the American Dream.”

— Obama addresses Iowa Democrats, Jan 3, 2012

“I understand America because I’ve lived America — I’ve lived the American Dream— and I want to be able to bring the promise of America to all of our people and make sure that we send President Obama back to his hometown, where he can go back and learn what it’s like to work in the private sector.”

— Former Utah Gov. Mitt Romney, Iowa campaign stop, Dec 28, 2011

The “American Dream is to recognize first that we exist under our Creator with unalienable rights” and, therefore, “no president, judge, or bureaucrat can take away our rights.”

— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, at the Greenville/Spartanburg GOP Bronze Elephant Dinner in Duncan, S.C., Jan 13, 2012

One thing that is certain in an otherwise uncertain presidential campaign: The words “American Dream” will be heard again and again, in stump speeches, in televised debates, in the president’s State of the Union address. Directly and indirectly, the candidates make reference to the notions of opportunity and freedom that exemplify America. The concept, the goal, the hopes embodied in the American Dream, all resonate with young and old, even in the current economic climate. 

In a recent survey at American University in Washington, D.C., students from a wide range of backgrounds said the “Dream” — however it is defined — can apply  to everyone, regardless of income. 

Of the 245 mostly 19- to 21-year-olds, 92 percent said they felt somewhat or very optimistic about their own futures. Still, 54 percent said recent and current economic conditions had negatively affected them personally, and even more — 62 percent — said the economy had negatively affected their families.

Optimism skewed higher among white students than among blacks and Hispanics, as revealed in a series of follow-up, in-person interviews conducted by a graduate research class at AU. 

Several Latin American students also said the U.S. doesn’t “own” the concept of an American Dream, describing the notion of the right to a good life and success as part of other American cultures, too.

However, 54 percent of those surveyed said the American Dream is more meaningful to those coming to the United States than for those already here — a thought echoed by several others in a research study of adults in Baltimore, where the Workshop conducted two focus groups. (See related story.)

The written survey of American University students found that many did not identify the words “freedom” or “free speech” with the term; most still referred to the dream in economic terms:

• 94 percent were somewhat or very familiar with the term the "American Dream"

• 46 percent equated the dream with "success" or "making money"

• Three-quarters did not yet feel they had attained the dream, but 70 percent thought their parents had

• The words most-identified with the dream — from a list provided — were: opportunity, success, hard work, education and freedom

• Politics, government and religion each garnered only 3 percent when
 asked if these words could be identified with the American Dream
• 40 percent said the term applied to “the middle class” and 38 percent said it applied to “immigrants”

• 43 percent said that people were just as likely to achieve the dream
 as they were five years ago, but 45 percent said they were less likely 
to be able to do so

• 76 percent agreed that economic conditions today make it harder to
 achieve the American Dream

Some Asian international students interviewed said they remembered hearing about the concept of the American Dream through television and movies. One cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream" speech and others mentioned movies such as Raisin in the Sun and American Beauty. Some of the respondents said they recalled hearing about the American Dream in school from their teachers or reading about it in their textbooks.  

 “…the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement. The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive.  

"No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

— Obama's State of the Union Address, Jan. 24, 2012

Monica Arpino contributed to this report.


A total of 245 students at American University participated in a study to determine awareness and attitudes toward the American Dream.  A two-page questionnaire was distributed by graduate students in Professor Maria Ivancin's Research Methods in Communication class across campus and students returned their completed surveys directly to the researchers. While this study employed a non-probability sample, the demographics of the resulting sample reflect the student body of the university. 

Survey respondents identified as: 73 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic, 6 percent black and 9 percent Asian.

Grad student researchers contributed to this report: Namuun Balkhjav, Taryn Bunger, Eileen Collins, Drea Garvue, Erica Hilton, Andrea Kruszka, Maria McPhilomy, Gabriela Melendez, Judith Millili, Sai Muddasan, Mona Nuseibah, Toby Phillips, Kathleen Pulupa, Alison Ring, Meng Shi, Kimberly Short, Allison Terry, Brooke Waller, Helen Wong, Yuwen Yang and Laila Yette.

This version corrects an earlier error in the graphic.

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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.