American Dream by James Truslow

Topics: Poverty in the United States, Poverty, Minimum wage Pages: 9 (3190 words) Published: February 20, 2013
The ‘American dream’ is a term coined by James Truslow in his 1932 book Epic of America, but it is a concept as old as America itself: anything is possible if only the individual is willing to work hard. The dream draws immigrants to our shores and borders every year and keeps millions of Americans content in the idea that their toiling will pave the way to success for them and for their children. However, for every rags-to-riches story, there are thousands of other hard-working people who cannot get by, who do not have enough to eat, transportation, safe housing, or warm clothes in winter. There is much evidence that the American dream is little more than a myth, a false promise that keeps millions of people working themselves weary for a better tomorrow that will never come.

The American dream is the promise of the Declaration of Independence, which indicates that our “inalienable rights” are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There is no single American dream, but Adams defines the concept in its most dignified sense: [It is the] 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…a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which that are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (qtd. In Ferenz) The lure of America for immigrants and the promise to its citizens is that, as Adams indicates, the individual is not held back by circumstances, but through individual efforts can pursue and attain whatever personal brand of happiness he or she desires.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt recognized the part the federal government needed to play in keeping the American dream alive-no longer was hard work the only factor involved in ensuring an acceptable standard of living. Under his administration, a number of social programs were put into place to help Americans achieve the dream, which Roosevelt described as “sufficiency of life, rather than…a plethora of riches [and] good health, good food, good education, good working conditions” (qtd. In Muir). Owing to these principles, Roosevelt’s New Deal included the Social Security Act, Fair Labor Standards Act that banned child labor and established a minimum wage, and a variety of programs that put Americans to work in civil service (Successes 4-6). Roosevelt’s programs and World War II helped drag the nation out of the Great Depression, but were not permanent solutions in making the American dream possible for all Americans.

By the 1960’s, one in five Americans were living in poverty, and in his first State of the Union address in 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared, “an unconditional war on poverty in America.” (qtd. In Quindlen 1) Johnson, too, understood that the American dream was one not attainable through hard work alone. As Anna Quindlen, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, notes in her 2004 editorial, “from [Johnson’s] declaration a host of government initiatives sprang, including Head Start, an expended food-stamp program, and sweeping reforms in health care for the needy” (Quindlen 2).

Unfortunately, in spite of the attempts of Roosevelt, Johnson, and others to lend a hand to those Americans who need it most, the feeling that the poor are responsible for their own troubles always seems to creep its way back into the American mind. We’ve all heard the rumors that the poor are lazy, that welfare is just n excuse not to get a job. Quindlen comments that “part of the problem with a war on poverty today is that many Americans have decided that being poor is a character defect, not an economic condition” (Quindlen 2). Public policy of the last few decades seems to follow this line of thinking: the Federal minimum wage has not risen since 1997 even as welfare reform movements have...
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