The definition of the “American Dream” has changed over time.
During the nation’s founding the term was wrapped up in the New World mystique in which everyone had the opportunity to own their own piece of land. In the 19th century, as the young nation was flooded by immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and other European nations, the notion was tied to the lack of a strict hierarchical society with an entrenched aristocracy.
It was historian James Adams who popularized the phrase “American Dream” in the the 20th century. “But there has been also the American dream, 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,” Adams wrote in his book Epic of America.
The American Dream has since been defined as something even simpler: the ability of children to achieve a greater level of prosperity than the patients.
Sadly, regardless of definition America’s youth feel that dream slipping through their fingers under President Obama’s watch. In a new study from Rutgers University, surveying hundreds of recent graduates, an increasing number feel that the American Dream is dead or dying.
“The cream of the crop of America’s youth, graduates of four-year colleges and universities, believe the American dream of upward economic mobility may have stopped with them,” write study authors Charley Stone, Carl Van Horn, and Cliff Zukin. “Just one-fifth said their generation will have more success than the generation before them. . . One in three believes that ‘hard work and determination are no guarantee of success,’ and a quarter believed that ‘success in life is pretty much determined by outside forces.”
It’s a bleak and pessimistic view brought on by years of economic stagnation and government policies that only serve to exacerbate the underlying problems.
Sadly, youth’s pessimistic attitude is confirmed with cold hard data. The Rutgers’ study finds that three-quarters of the graduated surveyed reported having at least one full-time job since graduation. The problem is that the median salary was just $28,000 – nearly $3,000 less on average than those who graduated before the recession began.
Perhaps that would be acceptable if graduates enjoyed the work they were doing or at least viewed their job as a valuable career stepping stone. But the study showed that only 2 in 10 saw their first job as one that would help them along their career path. Moreover, 40 percent reported that they took the job just to get by.
And while many graduates are eking by with near minimum-wage salaries, their student loan debt burdens are larger than ever. Because the economy is so poor, jobs are so scarce, and salaries are so low, students are falling further and further behind on their loan payments.
The Rutgers’ survey found that five years after graduation most of students had made very little progress in paying down their debt. In fact, of those who graduated during the worst of the recession (2009-2011) an incredible four in ten had reported not paying off a single dime of their debt.
Such enormous debt burdens has a ripple effect that impacts nearly every decision in a graduate’s life. The study reports that 27 percent of graduates lived with parents or family members because they needed to save money. Forty percent delayed a major purchase such as buying a home. Significant numbers have also been forced to take jobs that they are unenthusiastic about in hopes of putting a dent in their loans or have chosen to delay needed education because they can’t afford the debt.
These are sad statistics that represent real lives being torn apart by the Obama economy. Young Americans need jobs. What’s more, they need hope. Hope that the American Dream, in all of its iterations, is alive and well for them. While the American Dream fades, Obama is clearly asleep at the wheel.