My great-great grandfather was born on the Chisholm Trail in Spanish Fort, Texas. He was the first in our family to be born on American soil. His parents had fled northern England in the 19th century to escape crushing poverty. They landed on the plains of what would become Oklahoma. They lived in Indian Territory, tending "the poor farm" until my great-grandfather graduated valedictorian and moved southwest to farm cotton in Levelland, Texas.
I was raised on fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and the belief that prosperity always comes to those who are willing to work hard. Like many other American families, I believed each generation was able to fare a little better than their predecessors. Until now. According to a recent study conducted by Pew, while 84 percent of Americans earn more than their parents, those gains often aren't enough to move them up the economic ladder. Those born at the top and the bottom quintiles are most likely to stay there. African Americans are more likely to be stuck in the bottom or fall from the middle quintile. Findings like these lead some top economists to say that the American Dream is nothing more than a fairytale.
And there's more. Though the Pew study suggested that a degree generally promotes upward economic mobility, about 1.5 million U.S. college graduates under 25 are unemployed or underemployed. And at an unemployment rate of 14.6 percent—double the national average—one in every seven Americans ages 20-24 can't find work. While experts say that college is still worth the investment, one has to consider how deeply this news impacts recent college graduates.
These harsh realities strike at what Pew calls a "defining element of our national psyche … the idea that all Americans have equality opportunity regardless of their economic status at birth." If Pew is right, we're not just grappling with a grim global economy; we're coming to terms with the death of a Dream.
In May 2009, I sat in a hotel room in Frisco, Texas, holding my two-month-old. I anxiously flipped through TV channels to keep my mind off the fact my husband, Paul, was down the street at the corporate office, tendering his resignation to preempt coming downsizes. He'd known he needed to go for a long time, and things were bad enough that we decided it was better to face the recession with no solid back-up plan—newborn and all—than it was to continue with the company. After all, we had a sizable nest egg to get us through for a while.
But I was scared. What would become of us? What kind of life could I promise my daughter? Paul and I had done all the right things. We were hard workers, each with multiple graduate degrees. Yet doors remained closed. No one was hiring—especially Christian nonprofits. Pretty soon, right there in the Frisco hotel room, I was sobbing. I felt profound loss, yet I didn't know what it was that was gone.
Now I know: a fixed belief with roots sunk deep in my worldview. I'd believed what they told me—that success came to those who worked hard. And it doesn't. Not always. I felt the same as I did when I found out there was no Santa Claus—except it was much worse because I'd believed in this "fairytale" for much longer than I had believed in Santa Claus. In fact, I had built an entire life around it.
Some Christians say, in essence, that the American Dream deserves to die. In his book, Radical, Alabama megachurch pastor David Platt argues that Christianity is incompatible with the American Dream because it is based on "the dangerous assumption that our greatest asset is our own ability." On one hand, Platt's right. The gospel of self-reliance isn't the gospel of God. God's gospel tells us that we're blessed when we come to the end of ourselves. The gospel of self-reliance obfuscates the reality of our ultimate dependence on the mercy of God. In the moment of our weakness, his strength makes us mighty.
Others claim that the American Dream has been irreparably corrupted by materialism and consumerism. One quick tour through the "ghost exurbs" of Southern California is enough to convince anyone that consumerism and materialism are serious American "plagues." In this economic wasteland, row after row of abandoned McMansions stand as a testament to how far people's "dreams" can outstrip their fiscal reach.
If the American Dream was just about wealth and material gains through personal effort, I'd welcome the death of it. But though tens of millions have flocked to our shores in search of wealth, the heart of the American Dream has never been just "the acquisition of materials goods through personal effort." As historian James Truslow Adams, who coined the term "the American dream," once wrote, the dream is "of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers … in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class." The bedrock premise of the American Dream is not self-reliance, consumerism, or materialism. It's liberty.
I suspect many Americans have been dealing with the same sense of loss over the past few years that I dealt with that day in the hotel room. College graduates who can't find good jobs. Young couples and families forced to move back in with parents. People who have lost homes, lost jobs, lost cities and states they called home because they're priced out of the market. Still, I'm not ready, yet, to let the American Dream die. Times are hard and there's a lot of loss, but it's not about self-reliance and materialism.
At least it's not for me—and I don't think it is for you, either. For me, it's about liberty. Freedom to give my daughters what my ancestors hoped to give me—a vision of a future full of possibility and opportunity. Freedom to live, as Paul the apostle writes, "a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way," a life that is "good and pleasing in the sight of God." So like my ancestors, I will not give in to the hard cynicism that accompanies these bleak times; I will dig deep and continue to hope, following hard after the tiny flames of opportunity wherever they may be found. And that's what I will promise my daughters.