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Reporting The American Dream


All this summer, we're going to be looking at the American Dream. What it means to people and why it matters. We'll hear from musicians and politicians, business owners and immigrants about how the American Dream factors into their lives. And we'll ask whether these dreams are still attainable.

Our first couple of pieces will be from NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, who takes an historical look at how the American Dream has played out in politics. And NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie, who explores whether the dream of moving up the economic ladder is still within reach. Ari and John join me now in the studio.

So, hi, to both of you.



MARTIN: OK. So, Ari, for the purposes of this series, how are we defining the American Dream?

SHAPIRO: Well, there are obviously many different definitions and we'll try to explore the breadth of them over the course of the summer. But as a good starting point, pollsters ask two basic definitions. On the individual, they ask: Do you believe that success is within you own power or due to factors beyond your control? And then, on a collective level, they ask: Do you believe that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation.

Those two measures sort of get at this theme that is deeply, deeply rooted in American ideology. And what's interesting is that today some polls show that while majorities of Americans still believe in these two things, the majorities are much smaller than they once were. So, for example, if you look at this individual success - whether it's within your control or beyond your control question - one recent polls show that today it measures in the mid-50 percent range, whereas in the '90s, it was in the mid-70 percent range. So we're seeing something like a 20 percent drop in recent decades.

MARTIN: OK. So, John, of course a big the American Dream, as Ari just put it, is whether the children are better of than their parents, economically. Is life getting better for subsequent generations? So what have you found out? Are they?

YDSTIE: Well, for about two-thirds of Americans, it's still true on a very basic level, that they're doing better than their parents. They have higher incomes than their parents, even adjusted for inflation. However, it's often the case that the incomes are just a little bit higher than the parents and that they are stuck on the same rung of the income ladder as their parents. This is especially true if you're poor or if you're very well off. People at both ends of the income ladders tend to stay there.

For instance, 40 percent of the people who began at the bottom, stay on the bottom rung.

MARTIN: So those are the extremes. What about the people in the middle.

YDSTIE: Well, if you're in the middle you have a pretty equal chance of going either way - moving up or down. But the big surprise for most Americans, I think is that, you know, we have this idea that America is exceptional in terms of the opportunity to move up the ladder. And it turns out that's not true. A number of European countries and Canada have higher rates of economic mobility than the Untied States. Kind of surprising.

Another worrisome statistic is that during the past decade, even before the recession, incomes for most Americans weren't rising at all. And when you factor in the effects of the recession, incomes have declined for most Americans during the last decade.

MARTIN: OK. so, Ari, we're painting sort of a fragile picture of the American Dream right now. What does this mean in the world of politics, where it feels like every time you turn around there's another politician invoking the American Dream

SHAPIRO: Right, well, President Obama and Mitt Romney both say they are running to restore the American Dream and make it available to everyone. The two of them talk about the American Dream and what it is in kind of similar terms. But the path to make it accessible to everyone is very different, between Romney and President Obama.

So a lot of this focus is on what I like to describe as the floor and the ceiling. The floor being the level below which the government will not let people fall - so, social welfare safety net stuff. The ceiling being the limitations pushed on high achievers. So, you have Governor Romney talking about lowering the floor, scaling back some of the safety net and also raising the ceiling - lowering taxes on the wealthy, for example.

He talks about that incentivizing the American Dream. If there isn't such a safety net, he says, people will have more motivation to achieve more. And if there's less of a limitation on achievements, similarly, people will have inspiration to pursue the American Dream - emphasizing the individuality.

Then you have President Obama kind of emphasizing the need for us all to look out for each other, level the playing the field, strengthen some of these safety nets, and have the wealthy, as he puts it, pave their fair share - maybe bringing the ceiling down a little more, increasing the taxes on the wealthy. Two very, very different paths to achieving the same end of making the American Dream available again to everyone.

MARTIN: Now, John, you have spoken with social scientists about all of this. What are they saying about how to preserve the American Dream, as we've known it?

YDSTIE: Well, at the foundation is education and equality of opportunity. Americans still believe that we live in a meritocracy, and that if you work hard and you have some skill, you'll be rewarded. They're less concerned about things like inequality of income. They are concerned about equality of opportunity.

So a people like Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution and Stuart Butler at The Heritage Foundation - two think tanks with quite different political perspectives - suggest that focusing on policies that support investments in education and health and other opportunity-enriching things is the way to go.

MARTIN: Well, it's a fascinating project and we're going to forward to hearing all of those stories in the next weeks and months. NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie and White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, our series American Dreams starts this week. Thanks to both of you.

YDSTIE: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.