The American Dream: How Your Success Relates to Privilege

Opinion

Achieving the “American Dream” has been a goal for many people in the U.S. for a very long time. Politicians, parents, neighbors, and friends often tell people that by being/coming to America and working hard, you can achieve success. However, this is just the oversimplified version. Achieving the American Dream is more complicated than the typically told story. Hard work, of course, makes success possible, but it is not always probable. Additionally, how much of one’s success comes from being privileged? Many people are angered by the word “privilege” as if it is a personal attack. Often, the response to someone being called privileged is: “I never had anything handed to me, I worked hard to get where I am today.” The term “privilege” is not meant to disregard the work someone has put in to succeed but, rather, it is meant to explain that there have been more factors working in one’s favor rather than against. Privilege is typically determined by race, ethnicity, gender, class status, geographical location, sexual orientation, and many other factors. Some people are limited the moment they are born while others may face battles throughout their life that makes this dream a constant battle.

In order to determine the rate in which you have the ability to succeed (including privileged factors in your life), there is an online quiz funded by the Ford Foundation that hopes to challenge the typical definition of the American Dream by showing people how much support they had aiding them in their success. This quiz was created by Galewill, a communications company, with the help of social scientists and researchers as a way to inform the public about the inequality in this country.

Initially, the quiz asks your gender, race, and the decade you were born and then it dives into a series of multiple choice and “check all that apply” questions regarding your household growing up, access to education, healthcare, etc. I took this quiz and ended up with a score of 63/100. This means, although I have had to overcome several obstacles in my life, the majority of time things tend to work in my favor. The lower your score, the more factors working in your favor and the higher your score, the fewer factors working in your favor. Compared to others, I have had a very privileged life.

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Moving Up website

Bob McKinnon, the founder of Galewill, created an initiative that supports the research behind this quiz by using narrative, science, and fact to outline just how vague and one-sided discussions about the American Dream are. In an interview with the Huffington Post, McKinnon said “the narrative around the American Dream is essential–it gives people hope if you come from a poor background.” On the other hand, McKinnon explains how it is a “limiting belief” and that “the idea if you work as hard as you can, you can overcome anything” is only a fraction of the story. This incomplete story fails to include historical oppression, systemic racism, and other factors that hinders one’s ability to move ahead and achieve this “dream.”  

McKinnon created this detailed and comprehensive initiative to both educate the public about this one-sided story and to open conversation about more policies and solutions to fix the inequality within the United States.  By using stories from both famous and unknown individuals, science and research to back claims, and personal anecdotes, McKinnon has compiled a platform that will both inspire and educate.

However, in today’s political climate, how will the true American Dream flourish as McKinnon wants it to? With the Supreme Court ruling today, by upholding parts of Trump’s travel ban, there will be many displaced immigrants and refugees that face a harsh reality-the American Dream is, for them, just a distant dream. Although the Supreme Court will review the ban and issue a final decision this fall, they currently upheld that immigrants and refugees with connections to the U.S. may enter the country but those without connections are prohibited from entering. Based on their religion, ethnicity, and geographical location, these individuals are being denied an opportunity to establish stable lives in America–a characteristic that this country usually prides themselves on providing.

Even more jarring, however, is the attack on current citizens of the U.S. McKinnon, in his initiative, discusses at length the need for government help in areas such as healthcare, income inequality, and services to lower-income citizens. In fact, he discusses his childhood life while living off food stamps and the adversity he and his family faced because of it. However, he also discusses the benefit and need for food stamps and how, without them, people suffer from malnutrition and poor health which makes it harder for people to get ahead. Trump’s plan to cut food stamps will strip people from the very basic human rights they need in order to both survive and succeed.

Along similar lines is the discussion of health care. With Congress currently trying to pass the American Health Care Act (AHCA), thousands of American’s are threatened with the loss of health care coverage–many of whom are poor and/or have pre-existing conditions. Part of McKinnon’s initiative is to discuss how individual health and access to health care both play a pivotal role in one’s ability to get ahead and succeed. Without adequate health and without the money to afford adequate health care, it is near impossible for someone to achieve the American Dream. This isn’t just adults who face this inequality, but children as well. McKinnon sets a picture for readers to imagine: young kids who fall ill have to continually miss school. With poor health and a lack of education, getting ahead later on in life will be difficult. Now, with the current threat to  health care services, those children will not only fall ill and miss school, but they will also fail to get that treatment they desperately need in order to survive. In fact, this threat to health care is a threat to the lives of millions of American’s. Both children and adults should not be denied access to adequate health care, it is a basic human right that should be guaranteed to all.

Although McKinnon does not explicitly outline policy and legislation that will help those with fewer opportunities to get ahead, he does discuss the benefits of having certain programs and the effects if those programs were cut. It is in his interest, however, to start a larger conversation about what the American Dream really is and how certain factors can be altered to encompass everyone in this dream. In his interview with the Huffington Post, he mentions Congress and their American Dream score: “Wouldn’t it just be great to know what the aggregate score of Congress was? Or to have them hold up their score before they vote on something?” It is with this score that McKinnon hopes to have policymakers start a conversation with each other and to reach across party lines to shape legislation that will benefit all American’s to achieve success, and not just some.

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