From his 35-year career in politics, Michael Ford knows that talking about the American Dream is a sure way to get a roomful of people to nod their heads, no matter what their politics, age or income level. So when Ford—a 1970 Xavier graduate who’s worked for candidates such as Walter Mondale, Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown—set out to launch a political institute at Xavier, he wanted to focus on what the American Dream means to the people who dream it.
Xavier’s Institute for Politics and the American Dream launched its inaugural national survey earlier this year. It found that the American Dream is harder to achieve now than in the past and will be even more difficult to attain for future generations. Coming in
the midst of a severe recession, the pessimism didn’t surprise Ford, but the emotions behind the pessimism did surprise him.
“It’s the first time I went to a focus group where the participants wept. I was totally shocked. I’ve done a thousand of these things all over the place,” Ford says. He recalls a woman in a Dayton focus group who said she was reluctant to speak because she feared her emotions would overtake her. “She said, ‘We did everything we could to do right by our kids. My daughter graduated from college with $170,000 in debt and she can’t get a job here because General Motors left and National Cash Register left. What did we do wrong?’ She felt betrayed and also guilty; she felt like they must have done something wrong.”
The American Dream Survey is being repeated annually, and there are plans to conduct it in other countries to gauge how people outside the United States perceive the American Dream.
For this inaugural survey, the firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates conducted 1,022 telephone interviews with adults across the U.S. Among the survey’s most significant findings:
• Measuring the current condition of the American Dream on a scale of 1 to 10, nearly half of Americans rated the Dream lower
than a 5, with nearly a quarter assigning it the lowest possible rating. Only 5 percent awarded the highest possible mark.
• Sixty percent of those surveyed believe it is now harder to reach the American Dream than it was for their parents’ generation, while 68 percent say it will be harder still for their children to reach the Dream, and 45 percent believe it will be much harder. “The core of the Dream has always been that the legacy will improve, and now that’s not the case,” Ford says.
• A majority of Americans think the United States is now in decline and the world no longer looks up to it. Only 32 percent believe America is on the rise.
While the American Dream can be a vague concept, survey respondents defined it primarily in four ways: opportunity, freedom, family and financial security. Different groups emphasized different aspects of it, and those who defined it in terms of financial security gave the most negative assessments of the Dream. Middle-aged white women and Midwesterners also had a bleaker outlook than most.
The survey did find some unexpectedly bright spots: African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants consistently view the American Dream in a more positive light than white, native-born Americans. “Those who have the least had the most when it came to hope,” Ford says. “The only group to have a net positive impression of the American Dream was African-Americans. That stunned me.”
And while Americans believe the idea of the American Dream is suffering, they also view their individual prospects more optimistically. Most Americans believe the Dream can be reached through hard work, rather than luck or circumstances, and two-thirds are at least fairly confident that they will achieve it.
For Ford, the creation of the institute and the launch of its signature survey represent the achievement of his own dream, one he credits his alma mater with helping to achieve. “I graduated from Xavier and I launched a political career in Cincinnati after graduation. I then went off and did that for 30-plus years all over the country. I wanted to come home and give something back, as they say,” Ford says.