America's Politically Convenient Ideology: The Relationship Between the American Dream and Attitudes Toward the Poor

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Inequality and Stratification | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


Sheila Nelson, Sociology


From magazine articles to advertisements, grade school history lessons to university seminars, the American Dream is a concept of American cultural, social, and political life that is seemingly universally understood and accepted. Despite its abstract nature, the American Dream is described in uniform fashion, most often related to individual opportunity, advancement, and fulfillment. But what are the social implications of the American Dream? Who benefits from this national conviction? In a nation that prides itself on its dream of equal opportunity for all, why are poverty and economic inequality so high?

The current paper studies the American Dream from inside the framework of the high rate of poverty in the United States - rates which continue to be the highest of any industrialized country in the world. The current study interviews twenty middle-class adults in an attempt to explore the relationship between the American Dream and attitudes toward the poor. Although I hypothesized that the contemporary American Dream is in a state of slow evolution, the data from my sample reveal that the American Dream remains defined by traditional ethics of hard work, sacrifice, individualism, and personal responsibility. The impact these seemingly positive ethics have on attitudes toward the poor is that they allow poverty to be blamed on individuals rather than external social structural circumstances. Thus, the current ideological American Dream conveniently justifies the prevailing conservative and reactionary attitudes of the American middle class toward the poor.