The American Dream: A Cautionary Tale

Most Americans don't consider great wealth—in and of itself—to be a crucial part of achieving the American Dream.

| June 2014

  • Over the past forty years, the American Dream has become harder to reach and even harder to keep. Yet for most, the dream lies not in wealth, but economic security, the ability to pursue one's passions and looking toward the future.
    Photo by Fotolia/Karen Roach
  • “Chasing the American Dream” by social scientists Mark Robert Rank, Thomas A. Hirschl and Kirk A. Foster brings new understanding to the importance of the American Dream and what that means for the future of the nation.
    Cover courtesy Oxford University Press

The idea of the American Dream has captured the imaginations of people from all walks of life. Mark Robert Rank, with co-authors Thomas A. Hirschl and Kirk A. Foster, found that great wealth doesn't rank highly as a component of this dream in Chasing the American Dream (Oxford University Press, 2014), which provides a new and innovative look into the dynamic between the promise of economic security and the hardships that often arise in the quest for such rewards. The following excerpt from chapter 3, “Economic Security,” sheds light on the fact that wealth does not necessarily contribute to overall happiness and well-being.

To find more books that pique our interest,
visit the
Utne Reader Bookshelf.

If economic security and well-being through a good job, decent income, some savings in the bank, and a comfortable home represent important elements of the American Dream, then perhaps acquiring economic riches is even more of a good thing. After all, the goal of significant wealth has long been a part of the rags to riches story. We continue to celebrate the modern-day lottery winners who by good fortune find themselves in the millionaire circle. Likewise, a vast array of books and conference meetings abound each year with advice on how best to make your millions. Surely this must be the dream for many Americans.

Surprisingly, great wealth in and of itself is not viewed by most Americans as a key component of the American Dream. For example, in the earlier mentioned 2009 Pew national survey, of the 12 items that individuals were asked to rate in terms of their relevancy to the American Dream, “becoming rich” was ranked second to last. Only a third of Americans felt that it was an essential component of the American Dream. Likewise, a national survey conducted by Xavier University (Center for the Study of the American Dream, 2011) found that a mere 6 percent of Americans ranked “wealth” as part of their first or second definition of the American Dream. Similarly, within our in-depth interviews, only a handful of individuals mentioned great wealth as a key component of their American Dream.

One reason for this surprising finding can be found in a fascinating interview that we conducted with Robert Greenfield, a renowned family wealth advisor and lawyer. It was the week before Thanksgiving when we first met. Robert greeted us warmly in the lobby of his condominium building with a handshake and two bottles of water. Dressed in a charcoal grey business suit, he had a distinguished yet gregarious demeanor. We talked for nearly two hours in the late afternoon, but had to end early because Robert and his wife were attending a charitable event that night. Fortunately we were able to reconnect several weeks later, after he had returned from an overseas consulting trip with several high wealth families in Australia and Singapore. We took up where we left off in our earlier conversation, this time around a conference table on the seventh floor of his office suite overlooking the downtown cityscape. The insights that Robert shared into the world of great wealth were not what I had expected.

He began by noting that his family had had a long history in dealing with wealthy individuals. His grandfather had been one of the nation’s first income tax lawyers at the beginning of the twentieth century and had started the family business. Robert began his career, like his father and grandfather, in tax law, but later developed his own area of expertise in advising families with significant wealth. He founded Greenfield Worldwide Advisors, a family office that consults with a small number of US and international families of immense wealth. The assets of his clients ranged from $100 million to $3 billion. They often represented second- and third-generation wealth families, referred to in the business as dynastic wealth.

6/28/2014 11:26:08 PM

I have forgotten the thread that got me to sign up to this site. But my leitmotiv is TAX THE RICH to the 91% (over $500,000 income) that was in place during Pres. Eisenhower --from which a period of GREAT prosperity followed, I lived through it -- and restore tax sanity. The obsession with "trimming the budget", "tax cuts", austerity are ruining the planet. Any non-neocon rational person can eventually understand that cutting revenues hurt the commons, the public good. That is the message I want to convey.

Facebook Instagram Twitter