Despite Contrary Claims, African-Americans Believe in the American Dream — Even Millennials
Is the American Dream attainable for everyone? Conclusions in recent debates in academic and policy circles have been rather pessimistic, and a recent high profile newspaper piece went as far as saying that the American Dream is not for black millennials because so much of it is dependent on owning a house and reaching career milestones. An achievement not really possible for younger blacks in this country according to the author, who based her findings on discussions with a selection of her peers. Her conclusion that the American Dream is unattainable for black millennials Is a most disturbing finding if true.
In the survey, I asked thousands of Americans around the country what factors were essential to the American Dream. While homeownership was important, Americans replied that other factors such as freedom to live as one chooses, and meaningful family relationships were far more important — despite being elements that are not regularly discussed when people think about the American Dream.
The most significant factor in pursuing the Dream according to the survey results is to have the freedom to choose how to live one’s life. This is the case for the population as a whole, of which 86% believes that freedom of choice is essential for the realization of the American Dream. It is also the case for 83% of millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996. Breaking the findings down along racial lines, 86% of whites favor freedom of choice, while other groups are in the high-seventieth percentile range. Additionally, 83% of millennials (79% of black and 80% of white millennials) believe that a good family life is essential to the Dream. These minor percentage differences call into serious question the popular racial disparity stories.
In contrast, questions of home-ownership and career considerations are notably less important to Americans when they think about the American Dream. Roughly 60% of whites, blacks, and Hispanics said that homeownership was an essential component in achieving the Dream. Millennials were slightly higher at 66% with whites at 66% and blacks at 62%. Professional development was even less important, with only 55% of whites, blacks, and Hispanics stating that career success was essential. Asians, though, were higher at 63%.
The data make it unambiguously clear: being able to have a good family and live one’s life freely are far more important in the minds of millennials, and Americans generally, than homeownership and career considerations. And, there are minimal racial differences.
Thus, when I asked Americans if they had achieved the Dream, were on the way to achieving it, or thought it was out of reach, 82% of Americans collectively fall into the two optimistic categories while only 18% believe that the Dream is out of reach.
Breaking down the responses by race and ethnicity, there is remarkable parity and optimism in the population as a whole. The data show that 85% of Asians, 81% of whites, and 80% of blacks and Hispanics believe they are either living the Dream or are on their way to achieving it.
Looking at millennials specifically, 80% believe they have realized or will reach the American Dream. Racial differences are minor here with 82% of white Millennials and 78% of blacks and Hispanics being optimistic. Millennial Asians are again outliers at 90%. The Asian outlier aside, the data confirms a strong affirmation of the belief in the American Dream among this younger generation of Americans.
So, conclusions pointing to the Dream’s demise do not hold up to scrutiny. The survey data show that the decades-old conception of homeownership or upward career mobility being the primary driving forces behind the American Dream is no longer correct for Americans in general, and for black millennials in particular.
In our current political climate, there is certainly reason to believe that many black Americans and millennials may be frustrated with the seeming lack of upward mobility or lack of reward for hard work. However, the American Enterprise Institute’s Social Capital survey demonstrates that the idea of the American Dream has evolved beyond the narrow definitions of having a “big” job and a home. It has morphed into one where family is central, and where being able to have the choice to live one’s life as one sees fit, is paramount. With this in mind, it is powerfully evident that the American Dream is alive and well.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.