What Happened To The White Picket Fence?

05/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Ford Founding director, Xavier University's Center for the Study of the American Dream

In the American Consumer Republic, the Xavier University for Politics and the American Dream's first national survey of the Dream found that the alleged sanctity of home ownership may be the creation of advertisers and the realtor lobby.

This shift in the "ownership society" mentality may or may not be permanent, but for now and probably for years to come, it's likely to be bad for real estate developers, agents, home builders,, building materials, furniture and appliance manufacturers.

Only 6% of Survey respondents made home ownership their first choice when asked: "what comes to mind --- not in terms of what anyone else believes the dream is --- but in terms of what you think the American Dream is." (Another 7% made it their second choice.)

"Opportunity" was the first choice of 21% and for 14% it was the second choice. Not far behind were "freedom" and "family." (Of course there is nothing particularly "American" about "family." )

On the housing market front, lenders are finding that the social stigma of walking away from mortgage obligations is becoming culturally acceptable and seen as smart in some cases. This moral elasticity would have mortified home owners in the past. Part of "making it" was not just owning a home, but also being able to afford it.

As market watchers wait for housing numbers to improve to the peak levels 0f 2005, as if it were inevitably only a matter of time, someone should tell them that they have a better chance of Godot stopping by for dinner.

To hear the gurus talk about the housing market and new construction gives the impression that the housing industry exists to create jobs and economic activity --- not houses. But this isn't a "build it and they will come proposition." Take a tour of Tokyo and see the number of buildings and other projects constructed unnecessarily that now remain virtually empty. It's reminiscent of old Soviet bloc make-work projects where the fruit of labor is being busy, not being productive economically or otherwise.

Corroborating the Dream Survey, a recent article in US News, "Surviving the American Makeover," notes that:

"America's consumer industrial complex has an arsenal of tools for prying money out of consumers. But they're based on the dated premise that material stuff represents success."

Undeniably, advertising has influenced American Dream folklore and helped fashion the American tableaux in its clients' images. But the chances of an unvarnished assessment of the Dream is greatest in bad times like ours -- when people are most skeptical about the re-castings advertising makes possible.

In these tough economic times, the Survey catches the perceived value of hard work at its peak because the rewards for it are directly connected to accomplishment and not luck or social position as they seem to be in our gilded ages.

Sometimes advertisers seem angry at consumers for not spending in tough times. During the Depression, the consumer was portrayed as tight-fisted because of "unwarranted fear" or weakness rather than as unemployed or impoverished. Allstate uses a softened version of this today by appropriating FDR's "nothing to fear but fear itself" speech which is an indirect way of blaming the consumer for not spending -- as if the only constraints to a booming economy were psychological.

In the Survey, the expression of concern about the recession and jobs was strong but not in connection with the Dream, as only 8% thought it was important to the dream.

That's because it is not a dream to have a good job in America. It's an assumption --- upon which the launch of a personal Dream is predicated.

Hope for Dream attainment is declining along with America's view of political and corporate leadership.

On the plus side, Americans are realizing that there's more to the Dream than stuff.

This article originally appeared at