What Happened to the American Dream?


I am a child of the 1950’s; I freely and proudly admit that. My entire outlook on life was formed by my upbringing during that decade in the home, the church and the school.

One concept we learned about our nation was its potential for everyone to make himself better through hard work, education and moral living. The goal parents set for their children was simple: achieve a better standard of living than they did. It was called the American Dream, and it was what underlay American exceptionalism for many decades.

I doubt current high school students could tell you what this concept is. They probably have never heard the term “American Dream.” It clearly is not a driving force for much of our population today.

As a case in point, the Millennial generation is the first on record to have lower average income than their predecessors, 20 percent less than the Baby Boomers at the same age. Half of them are renting rather than owning homes and anywhere from a quarter to a half of twenty somethings still live with their parents (depending on what study you choose). Thirty percent of male Millennials have no job.

So what went wrong?

It’s easy to blame the schools, and some of it rests there. Certainly the breakup of the nuclear family is a primary contributor. On the other extreme the so-called helicopter parents and their coddling ways haven’t helped.

While it is a given that you can’t find a solution until you accurately identify the cause of the problem, there are some ideas that deserve attention.

Promise Indiana, an initiative begun in Wabash County and spreading throughout the state, is attempting to refocus career attention to a much earlier age cohort than the traditional high school group. The thinking is that kindergarten through third grade students are the most receptive to dreaming about their lives. I can attest to this as my seven year-old granddaughter already has several career goals in mind, all coming from things she’s seen and read.

In DeKalb County, a rural county that employs 40 percent of its workforce in manufacturing, the Promise Indiana idea of starting in the formative years has taken off through a program centered in its community foundation. Using the vehicle of tax-advantaged Section 529 savings plans for post-secondary education, the foundation will seed the youngster’s account with $25 and then ask the child to get a matching sponsor. If successful, the foundation will add another $75.

The goal is to get 70 percent of the K-3 group to sign up and about half them to secure matching sponsors. DeKalb may be a small county but the people there think big.

Will this help to turn around what is rapidly becoming a national malaise? Beats me. But DeKalb has a couple of ticks on the plus side of the ledger. First, the community leadership didn’t begin by asking a governmental agency to fund this. They are going directly to individuals, schools, not-for-profits and employers to help with moral and financial support. They hope to raise $900,000 in private funds to extend the program through high school.

Second, a lot of folks there appear willing to help push this program. That is a characteristic of DeKalb County, a county that I have neither lived in nor worked in but follow its activities closely as examples of grass roots enterprise. Contrast this approach to the crony capitalist, big project, taxpayer-funded overreach practiced by several Indiana cities which I won’t name here.

Clearly DeKalb is playing the long game by concentrating first at the youngest ages. These children are still impressionable and solving a generational problem will take at least a generation to solve. You have to start somewhere.

But this 1950’s throwback wishes the folks in DeKalb could have worked the term “American Dream” into their title. But that’s just the curmudgeon in me showing through.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].

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