Debating the American Dream

A substantive focus for a Brown-Warren forum

Massachusetts and the nation are no longer teetering on the abyss as we were in 2008, but a deep sense of discomfort has settled in among us. Again and again we hear anxiety about the American Dream and whether it is within reach of us and our children. So I suggest that a debate between incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, be devoted to the American Dream, and offer a few questions to start things off.

There are two bedrock assumptions about the American Dream. First, that hard work is rewarded. Second, that our children will enjoy a better life than we have known. To preface my questions we’ll take a quick look at how Massachusetts citizens view the American Dream.

In a MassINC initiative called “The American Dream Project,” the MassINC Polling Group finds that less than half of all Massachusetts residents and less than a third of those aged 18-29 believe they have attained the American Dream. Half of us say it has become more difficult to attain the American Dream in the past decade. Forty-five percent say that younger people will be “worse off” than the present generation, while just 19 percent predict they will be better off.

Though we Americans are an optimistic bunch, we are now uneasy about what our hard work will bring us and our children. So let’s go to the questions.

Candidates, MassINC reports that even though worker productivity grew in the state from 2000 to 2010, wages did not. “While workers nationally experienced a 4 percent increase in mean weekly wages over the last decade, the Commonwealth’s workers saw their wages rise by just 0.1 percent,” the report finds. Hard work is not being rewarded in our state. What has gone wrong, and how do you propose to fix it?

The American Dream also promises a better life for our children, but many of our younger workers are underemployed, and those who work take home less pay than did their parents and grandparents. From 2000 to 2010 older workers in Massachusetts saw wage gains but those under age 25 lost 8 percent of their median weekly earnings, and those 25-34 lost 2 percent. Households and families headed by young adults have been especially hard hit. The young are accumulating large amounts of college debt and entering a job market that is not ready to reward them. “Recapturing the American Dream” argues that these ills may affect family and household formation, home buying, the ability of younger workers to save for their own children’s futures, and retirement prospects. Why should young Massachusetts workers maintain their faith in the American Dream?

Generations of Americans have internalized the rags-to-riches ethic of the Horatio Alger stories, but growing evidence shows we may be fooling ourselves. Erin Currier of the Pew Center’s Economic Mobility Project recently told NPR’s American Dreams Project that data show America has less economic mobility than Western Europe or Canada. In the same report, Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation argued that opportunity still exists for the middle class but has “eroded significantly for people at the lower end of the income level.” How can we restore economic mobility for the middle- and lower-income classes?

There are many more questions that could be put to the Senate candidates about what can be done to reinvigorate our faith that America’s best days – and the best days for its younger citizens — lie ahead.  The Senate race has already received considerable national coverage and will continue to be in the spotlight until Election Day. During this time of economic unease, a substantive debate on the state of the American Dream would make the race worthy of that outsized national attention.

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Disclosure: Unbeknownst to Cunningham, CommonWealth, together with The Boston Globe and WBUR, have approached the Senate candidates about a series of single-issue debates, with possible topics including economic development and the American Dream, energy and the environment, foreign policy, and health care.