The American Dream—was it ever a reality? Maybe it was a mirage.
It’s a question worth posing with so many young people struggling with student loan debt and doubting their ability to ever afford a home. The reason older Americans are working longer is not because they are bored, but rather because their budgets are being busted by grocery costs, their children need support well into adulthood, and the pensions that once provided a safety net for their finances are for many a distant memory.
A series of articles by USA TODAY writers show how flimsy and precarious the so-called American Dream has become as well as how a new generation is defining what it means to live a life of financial security and fulfillment on their own terms.
The facts are unforgiving.
Find out more: Top personal loans
According to Redfin, a first-time home buyer would require an annual salary of about $64,500 to purchase a so-called starter home. It takes 13% more money than was required a year ago to buy a smaller home, which in June sold for a record-breaking $243,000 on average.
Student loans account for 36% of millennials’ debt, the largest percentage of any generation. According to financing site NetCredit.com, the cost of childcare exceeds the price for a student to attend a public college in their home state in 28 states.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that raising a child born in 2015 through their 17th birthday will cost a married, middle-class couple $233,610.
According to an online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted exclusively for USA TODAY by The Harris Poll, it’s understandable why 65% of Gen Zers and almost 3 in 4 millennials feel their financial starting point is significantly lower than that of earlier generations at the same age. And two-thirds of Americans concur that today’s youth must cope with issues that weren’t there in past generations.
According to The Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema, “they’re telling us they can’t buy into that American Dream the way that their parents and grandparents thought about it—because it’s not attainable.”
The American Dream was rendered difficult to achieve by urban renewal and segregation.
Naturally, dreams are aspirational by nature and have no guarantee of materializing. In our minds or in the distant, they glimmer.
If one doesn’t become a multi-millionaire, they can feel they’ve fallen short of their goals. Others find that having a cozy home, a family, and a little extra money in the bank is more than sufficient.
Whatever its complexities, the American Dream is central to the national character, and it is safe to assume that for the 967,500 persons who became citizens of the United States during the past fiscal year, as reported by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, some version of it predominated in their lives.
My mum was from abroad. Despite coming from a wealthy family in her home Guyana, she claims that she and her friends used to read American publications, watch Hollywood blockbusters, and pretend that the city’s streets were made of gold. The fantasy was tarnished when she moved to the United States to study in college and graduate school. However, she and my father built a successful life together, and when she became a citizen of the United States in the early 1970s, pictures from the celebration show her beaming, victorious, and happy.
The contours of the American Dream, however, have always been ambiguous. The ladder up was frequently missing a few rungs depending on who you were and where you came from, and many had to pull themselves up with no ladder at all.
Like the numerous Black and brown inhabitants whose homes were destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s for urban renewal, perhaps your slice of the American Dream was bulldozed for a motorway. Perhaps it was rejected because you loved a person of the same gender but couldn’t marry them.
The dream was still possible despite all the obstacles. In 1960, 38% of Black Americans owned a home, which was significantly less than the 65% of White Americans who did. But the obstacles to be overcome were difficult. Redlining forbade lending to people attempting to purchase homes in minority neighborhoods. Housing discrimination and racial segregation were pervasive. The American ideal of owning your own home was one that took a lot of work to achieve.
Redlining was forbidden by the 1968 Fair Housing Act. However, litigation have revealed that appraisers continue to place lower valuations on Black people’s homes than on those owned by White people. According to the Urban Institute, the disparity between white and Black households that own homes (73% vs. 44%) is wider presently than it was in 1960.
When you don’t make enough money, it’s also incredibly difficult to advance. An analysis by the Pew Research Center found that women make 82 cents for every dollar that males make on average. Women of color of Hispanic descent are paid significantly less—70% and 65%, respectively.