The elusive American Dream

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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The American Dream is at the core of the national ethos of the United States, the force that shaped the character and ideals of generations of Americans. While it is true that the phrase was coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931, as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement;” its roots are firmly grounded in the philosophical underpinnings of the American Republic particularly the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Dream is built on a set of ideals that revolve around the idea of freedom and those certain inalienable rights that all free men should partake in, such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in all its aspects including material prosperity. This American Dream is threatened today more than any time since the Second World War.

The great recession that plagued the United States five years ago was the culmination of decades-long economic and cultural trends that are not easily addressed or reversed. The limited recovery did not improve significantly the weak job market, which means that those left behind may never recover fully and may remain unemployed or underemployed. Even before the recession, the once economically prosperous Middle Class was beginning to feel the effects of growing income inequality in America. Of all the advanced countries in the world the United States has the most unequal economy. A report on income released by the government last year shows that the household income in 2011 fell 1.5 percent to its lowest level in 16 years, $50,054. The gap in income between rich and poor was the widest it has been since 40 years ago. According to a study by the economist Emmanuel Saez the average family income from 2009 to 2011 grew by a meager 1.7 percent, “but the gains were very uneven. Top 1 percent incomes grew by 11.2 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes shrunk by 0.4 percent.” The United States designates more than 42 million people as officially living in poverty in a population of 314 million. More than 30 million Americans have no health insurance. The Unites States is no longer the leader in those vital indexes that measure progress such as education, health, economic growth, life expectancy, personal income and happiness.

The recent bankruptcy of Detroit, the largest ever in U.S. history was the latest and most jarring example of the economic degradation and downfall in many American cities and towns. In this once symbol of American economic vitality there are tens of thousands of shuttered buildings, abandoned schools and closed factories because the tax base shrunk considerably with the exodus of 25 percent of the population of Detroit in the last decade. Detroit’s predicament brings to the fore the other dark side of economic meltdown, that is the fraying of society at the seams reflected in the decline of moral standards and norms, drug abuse, increase in the percentage of divorce, the alarming increase in the numbers of children born out of wedlock and increase in violent crime rates (which made Detroit last year the most violent city in the country).

The Unites States is no longer the leader in those vital indexes that measure progress such as education, health, economic growth, life expectancy, personal income and happiness

Hisham Melhem

In the last few months the New York Times began publishing “‘The Great Divide’ a series of articles and commentary on inequality - the haves, the have-nots and everyone in between.” One of the recent and most heartbreaking articles was “Crumbling American Dreams” by Robert D. Putnam which chronicles the slow death of his hometown of Port Clinton in Ohio. In the 1950’s the town was the “embodiment of the American Dream.” Most families owned their homes, fathers were employed, families were stable, drugs were not prevalent, and most people felt a sense of belonging to a large community. Putnam writes movingly about the link between rising unemployment and the beginning of the economic unwinding in all of its ramifications, while narrating how some of the victims of the unwinding view their predicament. Putnam also addresses the dichotomy of the collapse of the working class and the emergence of a new upper class out of the new services and technologies. Putnam says that the crumbling of the American Dream is complex, but that “its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings.”

President Obama knows, or should know, that history will define his legacy by how he dealt with the elusive American Dream.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on August 15, 2013.


Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem’s writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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