The American Dream and Poverty Ideology
The Great American Dream
The playing field is a land of plenty. The game is democratic free enterprise. The only skills needed are hard work and a good attitude. If America is a country where anyone can go from rags to riches, then failure must be a sign of personal iniquity, not social inequity. Prosperity is out there for the winning…or so the story goes.
Americans pride themselves on the absence of royalty or nobility in our representative democracy, but there are and always have been elites. Throughout American history, defenders of the American Dream have cited cases of men who made their fortunes through ambition and industry. Certain influential figures---including Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Russell H. Conwell---stand out for their contributions to cultural dialogue on business ethics and social values. They helped construct an ideology that associates success with individualism, determination, and morality. But after 400 years of American conquest, the millionaires and rags-to-riches stories are still the exception, not the rule. Is everyone else just not trying hard enough?
One underlying assumption in the American Dream is that this is a fertile land with a wealth of opportunities, where the streets are metaphorically paved with gold. In the words of 19th-century orator Russell H. Conwell, everyone has within their reach “acres of diamonds.”
Descriptions of America as a land of plenty date back to early colonial times. The 1698 essay by Gabriel Thomas, “An Account of Pennsylvania and West New Jersey,” is a classic example of the come-to-the-New-World genre. Thomas describes in extravagant detail all the bountiful commodities that the new colonists were enjoying. He extols the abundance of natural resources, wildlife, and territory, and leads his readers to believe that even disease and corruption were rare. Thomas attributes prosperity to the good laws of the new colonies and the extensive opportunities for trade and commerce. Land was cheap and wages good by continental standards, and his listing of salaries by occupation was one of the most compelling attractions for potential immigrants. His essay conveys the myth that such generous conditions are conducive to an almost utopian society, where there is no need for beggars or idleness.
The attitude of the American way is an ambitious approach to work. American values about employment and individualism have been shaped by the Protestant work ethic, which regards industry as an end in itself.
Benjamin Franklin was a key patron of this ideology, and his intellectualized version represents a one-size-fits-all prescription for success. From his 1748 “Advice to a Young Tradesman,” we have this classic conviction: “In short, the way to Wealth, if you desire it, is as plain as the Way to Market. It depends chiefly on two words, INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY.” In Franklin’s “Father Abraham’s Speech,” he puts forth such maxims as “Diligence is the Mother of Good Luck” and “God gives all things to Industry.”
America’s colonial Protestants considered wealth and success to be a mark of the “saved” or “elect.” In writing about Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop, author Patricia O’Toole describes a Puritan world that believed in Christian love but was governed by the rational pursuit of money. Winthrop’s advice on wages was to pay ordinary laborers just enough to get by, because common people would waste extra money. Two centuries later, Andrew Carnegie would make the same argument in his 1889 tract, “The Gospel of Wealth”: “It were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown in to the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy…. Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance.”
- Russell Conwell - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Russell H. Conwell (1843 – 1925): American Baptist minister, orator, philanthropist, lawyer, writer, and the founder and first president of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Russell Conwell expanded this theme into powerful social messages in his very popular “Acres of Diamonds” speech in 1890. If material success is linked with morality, then wealthy people must be good people. Conwell even offered his own statistics: “ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men are honest. That is why they are rich.” He followed through with his internal logic, applying it to impoverished people who have not found success: “To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong…After all, there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings or by the shortcomings of someone else.”
As a cultural motif, the Protestant work ethic is a double-edged sword for the lower classes. It both justifies disproportionate wealth---thereby serving as a political excuse to ignore economic injustice---and inherently condemns the character of those who cannot break out of poverty. Premised on assumptions about the availability of opportunity and the relationship between industry and morality, its legacy is an unresolved ethical conflict at the heart of the American consciousness.
Poverty Ideology and Policy-Making
There are chasms in the roads paved with gold. It was during the Great Depression in America that the condition of increasing poverty first came to be widely seen as a structural problem and was addressed nationally. Since then, policy attention to income assistance programs has shifted in accordance with public opinion. The core debate in welfare politics is the false dilemma between poverty as a social problem and poverty as a personal problem. Ideological assumptions can lead to subjective judgments about the causes of an individual’s circumstances and whether they deserve assistance.
The notion that one should work for governmental subsidization is a logical basis for allocating benefits. Many argue that it is the fairest way to distribute resources to needy people who are physically capable of employment. But the merits of such policies should be evaluated objectively, devoid of moralistic rhetoric about worthiness and minus ignorance about the many other factors that contribute to poverty.
One comparatively uncontroversial policy of economic subsidization involves tuition assistance for teenaged college students. This may well be a social investment in human capital, but it is a marked contradiction to the virtual political isolation experienced by non-collegiate teenagers---teenagers who might be working full-time at minimum wage. This subsidization of higher education economically segregates youth within only a year of high school graduation according to values other than the work ethic. College student loans and scholarships may be socially desirable mechanisms of assistance, but they should be acknowledged as an inconsistency in the work-for-aid dogma.
Profit Versus Effort
America’s culture does not expect hard work from everyone, nor does its system guarantee a better living situation for those who do work hard. It is the type of job, not the mere virtue of working, which will determine one’s income, benefits, and privileges. Workers might string together full-time hours without receiving full-time benefits, at part-time or temporary positions which do not offer even basic health-care insurance. Income determination is based on factors other than pure effort or labor hours, such as access to investment or training opportunities. Many salaries are also based on market worth, such as in the entertainment or professional sports industries.
This may all be acceptable or even laudable to some under a “free market” philosophy. But unless every individual were to possess true mobility within a range of choices in a completely unregulated economy, the free market is an illusion. Most people who are struggling with a poor job or salary situation do not have the luxury of “voting” in the economy by quitting their jobs and relocating to a better position. Assuming that sociological problems would disappear if only everyone adhered better to a capitalist, communist, or any other model is a purist fantasy.
Idealism to Pragmatism
The myth of the American Dream has inspired generations of immigrants and motivated many citizens towards success. But it is a profound distraction from effective policy-making because it presumes to address social differences through a provincial allegory. In reality, success has many different formulas. An individual’s assets may include education, capital, social networking, family privileges, access to transportation, natural talents, personality, physical appearance, help and luck. In discussing poverty solutions, we must take into account every potential sociological factor.
We must break free of oversimplified, ideologically flawed paradigms in order to rationally create policies that support human dignity, productivity, and justice. Let us thoroughly evaluate relevant programs, examine accurate data, and suggest proactive strategies. Meanwhile, let us examine our own assumptions and judgments of others. Even if a utopian society or global world order of any ilk is achievable, there will be poverty until it is established. …and then there will still be human disease and misfortune and tragedy. How shall we deal with it?