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Creating a Better Conversation About the American Dream

by Megan Rose Donovan

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spoke a lot during the first presidential debate about opportunity, the middle class and dreams. There has been quite a bit of talk this election season about these themes and about the American Dream specifically—who wants it? Whose responsibility is it to help citizens attain it? We, along with the GALEWiLL Center for Opportunity & Progress, have been exploring the public's thinking on the American Dream over the past year, and some of what we found may surprise you.

While campaign rhetoric and media reports often center on a divided electorate, we found a strong consensus of opinion-- across gender, income, race and political lines—on what is "absolutely essential" in achieving the American Dream.

Regardless of political affiliation, the vast majority of our 2000 respondents said that a strong work ethic, values, and a good education were the top three factors contributing to people's ability to achieve the American Dream:

  • Almost 9 in 10 respondents say that a strong work ethic is "absolutely essential" to achieving the Dream (86 percent of Democrats say this; 91 percent of Republicans).
  • Eighty percent identify parents or other adults who teach honesty, responsibility and persistence as "absolutely essential." (83 percent of Democrats say this; 85 percent of Republicans).
  • Seventy-seven percent identify good schools and teachers that ensure that every child has a fair chance to get a good education as "absolutely essential." (89 percent of Democrats say this; 68 percent of Republicans).

On Monday, during an event at the National Press Club, Public Agenda President Will Friedman and Director of Research Carolin Hagelskamp, along with GALEWiLL Center Executive Director Bob McKinnon, presented the survey, which is part of The Invisible Dream: Creating a New Conversation about the American Dream and What It Takes to Achieve It. Following the presentation, a panel moderated by Juan Williams at the National Press Club dug deeper into the results. The panelists included Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post and Hedrick Smith, author of Who Stole the American Dream?

While Americans seem to agree on the foundation of the American Dream, it seems as though questions we've seen raised during the campaign—questions over the role of government and the quality of our nation's work ethic—also seem to extend into the American electorate. The findings suggest a stark divide in opinion on the level of government support for those pursuing their idea of the American Dream.

  • Forty-two percent of respondents agreed that "achieving the Dream is mainly something people do for themselves—what government and communities do doesn't matter."
  • Thirty-nine percent agreed with the statement "it's crucial for the government and communities to take steps so every child has a fair chance at the American Dream."
  • Nineteen percent said neither statement reflected their views.

During the panel, Sawhill reconciled the public’s divided view of government assistance in pursuit of the American Dream by eliminating an either/or solution. “You need both. You need to work hard and you need to have values, but we don't live in a Horatio Alger society. Having a helping hand from the government should be part of the equation as well," she said.

Respondents were also torn on whether people with strong values and work ethic have access to the American Dream. While 43 percent of respondents agreed that "one of the major dangers to the American Dream is the decline of a strong work ethic and values like honesty," virtually the same percentage agreed that "even people with a strong work ethic and good values are becoming increasingly shut out from the American Dream."

Meanwhile, even amid tough financial times and high rates of unemployment, the survey revealed an incredible sense of optimism among respondents towards the pursuit of the American Dream. Forty percent of respondents said they are making progress but still have a way to go to achieve their dream, and 24 percent said they have achieved it.

“You have a disconnect between what people say they think is going to happen in their lives and what they describe as actually happening. Now, question: Can we do anything about it?" said Smith at the panel discussion.

Regardless, we're impressed by the level of consensus the findings suggest. Over on the blog at Demos, David Callahan writes, reflecting on the research, that "would-be majoritarian leaders must recognize that few Americans think in either-or ways about their core values. People want a political party that preaches both mutual obligation and individual responsibility in the same breath."

We agree, and think that the findings of this project signal a big opportunity for the public to build on common ground and have a more dynamic conversation on how to enhance those values which make the American Dream a reality.

As our president, Will Friedman, said, "This research suggests that there is a real opportunity here for the nation to have a healthier and more robust national dialogue about the American Dream, one that will truly allow us to weigh our options and figure out what it will take to help more Americans find success in this country."

Meanwhile, as we pursue this more robust dialogue, Public Agenda works every day to improve some of the fundamental elements revealed in the survey-- helping students navigate the pathway through community college, facilitating and engaging diverse stakeholders to improve higher education affordability, and working through possible solutions to our tough health care challenges.

The Invisible Dream project is an effort of Public Agenda and GALEWiLL Center for Opportunity and Progress which aims to facilitate a more nuanced national dialogue on the American Dream by considering the public’s voice.

For more info and to see full survey results, please visit


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