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What Is the American Dream? Examples and How to Measure It

File Photo: American Dream File Photo: American Dream

The American Dream: What Is It?

The American Dream is the idea that everyone may achieve their definition of success in a society where everyone has the opportunity for upward mobility, regardless of where they were born or what class they belonged to.

The American Dream is viewed as something that must be earned through hard effort, risk-taking, and sacrifice rather than luck.

Knowing what the American Dream is

In his bestselling 1931 book Epic of America, author and historian James Truslow Adams introduced the phrase. He says it is “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.”

Adams said, “It is a fantasy that the European upper classes find difficult to understand correctly, and too many of us have become jaded and suspicious of it. It is a dream of social order in which every man and woman can reach their full potential and be accepted for who they are, regardless of the fortunate circumstances of their birth or position, rather than just a dream of cars and high salaries.

The origins of the “American dream” go far further back. The Declaration of Independence contains its foundational principles: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

An individual may live life to the fullest as they define it in a community built on these ideals. America also developed mostly due to immigrants who made it possible for anybody to become an American and pass that citizenship on to their offspring.

Benefits and Drawbacks of the American Dream Benefits

Political, economic, and legal freedoms and the protection of private property rights are necessary for realizing the American ideal. Without them, people cannot make the decisions that will allow them to succeed or have faith that their accomplishments won’t be unduly snatched from them by force.

The American ideal promises freedom and equality. It provides the opportunity to make both significant and insignificant decisions that have an impact on one’s life, the freedom to aim higher and have a chance of succeeding in doing so, the freedom to amass wealth, the chance to live a life of dignity, and the freedom to live by one’s values—even if those values are not universally held or accepted.

The works of post-Civil War author Horatio Alger, in which poor but diligent young men achieve success through courage, tenacity, and chance, represented fulfilling the Dream.


Calling it a “dream” also implies that many actual Americans and those who aspire to become Americans haven’t necessarily experienced their ideals in practice. At least as ancient as the notion is, the complaint is that reality falls short of the American Dream. For many people living in the United States, the fulfillment of the goal has been hampered by the migration of settlers into Native American territory, slavery, the initial restriction on voting rights for white male landowners, and a lengthy list of other injustices and difficulties.

For individuals who aren’t already wealthy or were not born into wealth, the American ideal has started to look less feasible as income disparity has significantly expanded during the 1970s. Real family income increased significantly more rapidly among the highest income groups than among other segments of American society, according to data on family income from the U.S. Census.

These facts, however, do not take away from the American Dream’s brilliance as an ideal and a light for all people.


  • The American ideal promises freedom and equality.
  • The freedom to live on one’s terms is one of the driving aspects of the American Dream.


  • The American Dream is an ideal that frequently falls short in practice.
  • The American ideal has appeared less reachable as economic disparity has grown.

Measurement of the American Dream

Nowadays, owning a home is widely used to illustrate achieving the American Dream. It represents being financially successful and independent and having control over one’s home rather than being at the mercy of a landlord. Being one’s boss and owning a business fulfill the American ideal. Access to healthcare and education have also been listed as components of the American Dream.

The percentage of Americans who own their homes has continuously climbed, highlighting how important it is to own a home as a symbol of accomplishing the American Dream. For instance, the homeownership rate was 65.8% by the end of 2020, a rise of 0.7% over the year before.
The U.S. economy has traditionally valued entrepreneurship as well. 1.6 million net new employment were generated by small enterprises in 2019.

The American Dream includes owning one’s own home, company, and way of life, and the U.S., as a first-world nation, allows people to pursue their goals without worrying about necessities like access to quality healthcare and education.

Particular Considerations
Sociologist Emily S. Rosenberg lists five aspects of the American ideal that have spread to other nations in her book Spreading the American ideal:

American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945. They consist of the following:

  • The idea that other countries need to imitate American Progress
  • Belief in the free market
  • Support for foreign direct investment and free trade agreements
  • Fostering the free exchange of ideas and culture
  • Acknowledging the legitimacy of the government’s protection of business

Various things that gave the United States an edge over other nations contributed to the American ideal. To begin with, it has a moderate temperature and is physically more remote than many other nations. Businesses use its culturally varied population to encourage innovation in a competitive world. Oil, fertile land, and lengthy coastlines are just a few of the abundant natural resources that help the nation and its citizens produce food and earn a living.

What Originally Shaped the American Dream?

Progressive-era reformers of the 1900s frequently referred to the “American dream” in their speeches. They aimed to moderate monopoly capitalism and safeguard workers and communities against robber barons rather than exalting the chase of riches.

James Truslow Adams, a writer and historian, popularized this idea in his best-selling book Epic of America, published in 1931.
He says it is “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.”

How Does the American Dream Look in Practice?

The American Dream can be shown by having a home, creating a family, finding employment, or running your own business.

Is it still possible to realize the American Dream?

The American Dream’s viability and what it encompasses are hotly contested topics. Many individuals today are concerned about their ability to keep up with escalating housing expenses and loan interest payments required to buy items like homes and vehicles. In addition, Americans must prepare for their retirement and incur significant out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare and higher education, which can leave families with high-interest debt from which they may find it difficult to recover.

What Does Dr. Martin Luther King Say About the American Dream?

In his well-known address, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. alluded to the idea of the American Dream by saying, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.'” Dr. King had been thinking and preaching about how African Americans were not treated equally to white men and women since the early 1960s, which prevented them from experiencing the truth of the American ideal. Equality was Dr. King’s “American dream” in the end.

The American Dream: How Has It Changed?

The American ideal has evolved from one based on equality and unity to one driven by consumerism and a personal desire to prosper materialistically. The mortgage corporation Fannie Mae started promoting the idea that owning a house was a cornerstone of the American Dream in the 1990s and early 2000s, and they utilized the phrase heavily in advertisements for home loans.
This mentality fuelled the housing boom and eventual bubble, which burst and caused the financial crisis of 2008–2009.

The idea that everybody should be able to follow their aspirations and create the life they desire if they put in the effort is still considered one of the most distinctly “American” ideas. This driving force encourages entrepreneurship and individual desire, which romanticizes everyone attempting to succeed in the United States. Although each generation has defined the American Dream differently, it is unquestionably and always will be a component of the American spirit.


  • The phrase “American dream” was first used in the best-selling book Epic of America, published in 1931.
  • It was characterized by James Truslow Adams 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.”
  • Various things that gave the United States an edge over other nations contributed to the American ideal.
  • Education and home ownership are frequently viewed as means of realizing the American dream.
  • The American Dream is a part of the American ethos. It most likely will always be, even if its meaning has evolved to imply different things to different generations.

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