Tag Archives: US Poverty Rates

The American Dream Never Existed

The American dream, supposedly, is the idea that anyone can come from humble origins and through hard work and perseverance you can raise yourself up to a comfortable, middle-class life. Maybe you won’t be rich, but you’ll be able to have that nice house and send your kids to college and maybe one day they’ll be rich. People say that the American dream is dead, but what if the truth is that it never existed at all?

The idea first came about during the latter half of the 19th century, but at that time it was incredibly rare for anyone to raise themselves up the way that the American dream promises. We raise up Carnegie and Rockefeller as people who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” but those were the exceptions and not the rule. Rockefeller and Carnegie were the 1% of the 1% of the 1% who lived in gilded opulence. But the entire idea of the “gilded age” is that once you scratch away the thin coating of gold you see something black and rotting.

The real America was the sprawling tenements, overcrowded and teaming with disease. It was the steel plants where strikers were shot by Pinkerton mercenaries, the meat plants where rat excrement and spoiled flesh was mixed into meat for the poor, the factories where workers crushed under machines were unremarkable, and the streets where the unemployed begged for scraps while their children crawled through coal mines.

In 1890, when immigrants were sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in search of the American dream and the robber barons were allegedly proving that it was real, the average American family made only $380 per year. That’s less than $11,000 in today’s money, not for an individual, for a family, the average size of which was 4.93 in 1890. This was a time when 91% of American families made under what would be the equivalent of $34,000 today and the average American family had the equivalent of $10,800 to bring five people through a year.

The other period that we associate with the American dream is the 1950’s and mid-century America. We have the idea of the perfect “leave it to Beaver” American life where everyone owned their house in the suburbs and got to get off work at 5 o’clock. That was only a reality for a minority of Americans. In the 1960’s Lyndon Johnson launched the “war on poverty” and that did not come out of nowhere. Poverty was a problem through the 1950’s and into the early 1960’s. More than it is today in fact.

In 2018 the Census Bureau reported that the poverty rate in the United States was 11.8%. But through the 1950’s it was over 20% and according to some sources peaked as high as 35% in the early 1950’s. Home ownership rates too were lower than than they are today. According to the 1950 census the home ownership rate was only 55%, and only 61.9% in 1960. In 2000 it was 66.2%.

Home ownership rates in the United States, 1959-2020
Home ownership rates in the United States, 1959-2020
Poverty rates in the United States, 1959-2017
Poverty rates in the United States, 1959-2017

The American Dream Never Existed

The fifties were surely great if you were a white, affluent, office worker, but if you were black, or a poor farmer, or an immigrant, then those were even worse times for you than now. The only thing that was acceptable to show on tv at the time was white affluence so that is what we remember, but that was by no means the reality for most Americans.

Through the early 1960’s poverty rates decreased and home ownership rates increased, and each remained roughly stable for the next half century. No significant gains have been made in raising Americans out of poverty since the 1960’s.

Today too, can hardly be called a time that lives up to the idea of the American dream. Not when 16 million children are hungry, $1.7 trillion in student debt is weighing down the economy, 13 million workers have more than one job, and 137 million people have medical debt. Still today, the vast majority of wealth in America is controlled by a privileged few and most people die in the same social class they were born into.

So, if not then and if not now, when was the American dream real? Perhaps it never was. Perhaps the American dream was always just a lie that the oligarchs told us to lull us into complacency. The same as public philanthropy that makes us feel like the world is not as bad as it is, and wealth porn that makes us admire and revere the rich, maybe this is another tool of plutocrats to make us think that we too can be like them, and therefore that there is no need to change.

Perhaps though, the working class is finally waking up. In the wake of the “Game Stop-Reddit Scandal” more and more people have realized that the game has always been rigged to prevent the working class from ever breaking into another class. This is not something that can be changed with “hard work” and “perseverance.” This is a situation that has existed for as long as America has and if we want to overcome it the only way to do so is with radical reform to redistribute opportunity from a handful to the majority.

Please stop pretending that the wealthy are on your side, or that they have created a system that is designed to allow anyone to be like them. The idea of the American dream is little more than another tool to stave off threats to the status quo. They are not, and they have not, because if they had they would not be where they are.

We found this story at: https://lucretiareport.com/