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Brett Ashley McKenzie Headshot

The "American Dream" Needs a Reality Check

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During the presidential campaign and throughout this economically tumultuous time, the phrase "the American Dream" is tossed about with increased frequency. Yet when you ask various people to define the American Dream, you seldom get the same answer.

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFP) hosted their first "Defending the American Dream Summit' in January 2008, for which the headline speakers were six of the Republican candidates for president, including Senator John McCain. Surprisingly, I can't find a definition of the American Dream on either the APF or their Summit's Web sites, and the press release for the event gave only this:

"Defending the American Dream Summit will be a massive demonstration of public and leader's support in favor of the issues related to genuine fiscal restraints, lower taxes, and the free-market policies delivering the American Dream. "

Additionally, they offer this quote from Ronald Reagan:

"You can't put a price tag on the American Dream. That dream is the heart and soul of America; it's the promise that keeps our nation forever good and generous, a model and hope to the world." President Ronald Reagan, October 22, 1986

In August, FOX News' "Your World" host Neil Cavuto accused Barack Obama of "bashing the American Dream" when the Democratic nominee criticized Senator McCain's inability to recall the number of homes he owned.

"Barack Obama just releasing another ad bashing John McCain for those seven houses, eight houses, whatever it is - that's two ads in two days... Well, instead of slamming McCain, is Obama really bashing the American Dream?"

If owning seven or eight homes indicates achieving the American Dream, many of us will never see that dream come true. And frankly, anyone who believes the American Dream is solely about wealth, property ownership, or flat screen TVs and flashy cars needs a wake-up call.

When American historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in his book "The Epic od America" in 1931, he defined the American Dream as:

"that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

That may be just one man's opinion, but it's one I happen to agree with. Ironically, Adams worked in investment banking before he penned those words. He also served in the military, and was a delegate to the 1918 Paris Peace Conference.

His notion is that equal opportunity is of greater importance than the personal wealth of a few, which seems to be in direct contradiction to the sense of wealth entitlement that has permeated factions of our population. Especially now that economists have deemed us "officially" in a recession, everyone wants their own financial security to be somehow guaranteed. The wealthy are opposed to having their tax cuts repealed, despite the fact that their tax dollars could help shift the country out of its recession. Many members of the middle class continue to look for ways to earn more money, even as the rest struggle to maintain their current financial status. The less fortunate have lost jobs, lost homes, and find themselves in the throes of poverty. The American Dream is, currently, only working for the wealthy; for many, the concept of "equal opportunity" is a myth.

Many people will argue, saying that in the "Land of Opportunity," every American can become a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company if they put their mind to it and work hard. But ask yourself, do you truly believe that the wounded Vietnam veteran living on the streets of D.C. has as fair a shake as the fresh-faced college grad, dressed in a suit, ready for an interview? Does the single mother whose hours were slashed, forcing her to lose her health care benefits, have equal opportunity as the young woman who inherits her parents' business and can schedule her own work/life balance to suit her family's needs?

Not everyone with a college degree will be successful. Many people who work tremendously hard at their jobs will get passed over for a promotion, and many hard working individuals will lose their jobs due to forces beyond their control.

It's hard not to notice the day-to-day challenges an economic recession presents the majority of us with; in fact, at the grocery store the other day, I was horrified to see how much a few sticks of plain old butter cost. In fact, rather than make my own pie for Thanksgiving, I considered buying a store-made pie, since it somehow cost LESS than the butter. But I bought the butter, and I made the pie in my kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, listening to the radio and enjoying a day off from work (a day off that the people who checked me out at the grocery store had not been granted). With my hands in the dough, my shirt -- and my mischievous puppy -- coated in flour, preparing food for my family, I felt like I had it all.

If the American Dream is about making the most of the opportunities presented to you, acknowledging that you win some and lose some, and the will to pick yourself up when you fall, then I think we all have a shot at seeing that dream come true. But basing our society's interpretation of quality of life on wealth alone serves only to alienate and dishearten many... and whatever your interpretation of the American Dream, it should not include exclusion.