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What is The True Meaning of The American Dream

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Since its original acknowledgment, while not explicitly, by the 1774 Royal Governor of Virginia John Murray, The American Dream has evolved into more than just an idea of conceivable futuristic- achievement; it has become a justifiable goal and an ambition of many United States citizens. The American Dream inspires people to be their best self, to ache for considerable or minor aspirations, no matter the inevitably difficult circumstances that will arise.

Although many individuals, today, still look at The American Dream as a legitimate idea, new-age progressivism and increased class division has influenced people to deduct that it is an outdated and absurdly ridiculous concept. While I certainly acknowledge that there can be burdensome obstacles in the way for a person to improve their social and economic standing and that people are not always surrounded by motivational peers, The American Dream is a subjective term and can be attained by means of hard work and persistence, even in the most excruciatingly problematic situations.

Generally speaking, people who are less economically privileged will have more difficulty advancing their social standing than those who have the means to do so. Certainly, Western Democracy stimulates monetary imbalances, which in turn, can generationally impact families who have relatives that were unsuccessful. Data taken from 2002, by New York State, indicates that New York City received significantly less funding than Jericho and Manhasset. While Manhasset, as of 2002, spent upwards of $20,000 per student, New York city public schools received less government funding and reported to have spent just above $10,400 per student.

Instead of analyzing why these imbalances are in place and why these funding variations exist, it is equitably vital to acknowledge that these realities do, in fact, greatly impact our society as a whole. In 2001, 46.5 percent of students in New York City graduated High School within four years, which can be compared to the Manhasset School District graduation rate, in 2017, of 98 percent. Obviously, school funding substantially affected why more students graduated from Manhasset as opposed to from New York City School districts. Aside from analyzing the youth, is it really possible for people already living in poverty to achieve an American Dream?

Anna Quindlen – historically – has written about civil issues and class imbalance. In Homeless, a piece written in 1988, Quindlen describes a homeless woman that carried around a picture of a yellow residence. She says “They were not pictures of family, or friends, or even a dog or cat, it’s eyes brown-red in the flashbulbs light. They were pictures of a house. It was like a thousand houses in a hundred towns, not suburb, not city, but somewhere in between, with aluminum siding and a chain-link fence, a narrow driveway running up to a one-car garage and a patch of backyard,” (Quindlen). While I cannot speak to what propelled this woman to the state of living on the streets, hypothetically, is The American Dream still a feasible idealism for this particular individual?

Government intervention, to the aid of her struggles, would not work to advance her chance of ever achieving the American Dream – or anything like it. The American Dream is meant to symbolize hard work and be indicative of personal achievement, but if a person becomes ardently reliant on government money, no personal success has in fact occurred. Ultimately, a homeless person, while they might be in their situation for countless reasons, intentionally or unintentionally, has a minuscule likelihood of ever having a white picket fence – or rather a low chance of attaining the idea of the white picket fence.

In this respect – The American Dream is nearly preposterous for this person to desire – considering they live on the streets. Another reason which makes it extremely difficult for an individual to advance in society, is if the person’s peers are unmotivating. For example, Chester High School, in Chester, PA, yields a 41 percent graduation rate. The school is ranked as one of the worst in the United States (via and has a 78 percent rate of economically disadvantaged students. They have a 12 percent English proficiency rate and a four percent math proficiency rate.

In other words, what is the academic and social experience like for the student who is motivated at Chester High School? Considering that Chester is known for gang violence, the few students who are compelled enough to desire to succeed face immense challenges inside and outside of the classroom. There are 42 teachers for just under 1,000 students at this High School, resulting in oversized classes that lack basic functionality.

Compare this to Harriton High School, in Rosemont, PA, which boasts a 10:1 student-teacher ratio, has an average graduation rate of 96 percent, and has an average ACT score of 30 out of 36. Being a student at Harriton myself, I can speak to its highly academic atmosphere; while there may be students who want nothing more than to drop out, Harriton teachers and the community as a whole are too genuine and caring to advocate or easily let something like this happen.

At Chester High School, I would speculate, a student can drop out and the school would not even remotely care; at Harriton, the teachers, guidance counselor, and principal would all probably meet with the student to discuss details and make sure the student understands that they are leaving an amazing community that cares about them.

Quindlen may be articulating about a simple encounter that made a strong impression on her, but she is predominantly referencing injustices and the possibility that these imbalances cannot be reciprocated by anyone or any governmental organization. Taking all of this into account, one can make a legitimate argument that The American Dream, simply, does not apply to all individuals in the same manner.

A major problem with the societal depiction of The American Dream, is that people pinpoint it as a definitively concise term that entails economic wealth and unbelievable happiness. This is simply false. While the government may portray The American Dream in one way, there is no legislation based stranglehold that arrogantly states that there is one means of understanding it, as an idea. In many ways, The American Dream is one of the most subjective values in our culture.

Hypothetically, if a single mother believes her American Dream entails happiness but not wealth, what higher authority would argue that she is incorrect in her moral values? If a female from rural Arkansas believes that living poorly but being able to drink an excess amount of alcohol is The American Dream, who can refute her internal goals? My essential point is that we – as a society – cannot continue to make this erroneous and informal declaration that The American Dream entails a specific lifestyle – but it must be understood that people can significantly raise their economic standing by being genuinely resilient.

Take Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby, while maintaining the stance of being a fictional novella character, is a foolproof case of someone who rose in social and economic standing; his family is from the Midwest and he grew up poor. While money may not have made Gatsby happier, considering materialistic values are presumably not at the root of someone’s emotions, Fitzgerald makes it clear that Gatsby did not become wealthy by luck; he worked extremely hard doing legal and even illegal jobs to achieve his state of privilege.

Contrarily, because Gatsby was somewhat of a bootlegger, as Tom Buchanan consistently describes him, does this make him a non-representative subject to prove the validity of The American Dream? Chapter 7 addresses the hostile and painfully awkward relationship between Jay and Tom, but also the controversy that Tom notices about how Jay earned his wealth. Tom says “Why are you, anyhow? You’re one of that bunch that hangs around Meyer Wolfsheim – that much I happen to know – And I’ll carry it further to-morrow,” (Fitzgerald 133).

Evidentially, Buchanan feels threatened by Gatsbys acquired wealth, which is money he feels belongs to men who legally work hard. Putting emotions aside in this chapter, Gatsby has clearly gotten to a state of immense wealth, but contradictingly, the fact that he is unhappy supports my argument that The American Dream does not entail a big house in the suburbs and substantial economic wealth. The American Dream, in The Great Gatsby, is an idea that cannot be defined, but in society’s idea, the character that is working towards The American Dream the most is George Wilson.

Another source that is exemplary of my essential argument, is The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. Esperanza, the protagonist, is represented as being somewhat more intelligent than her peers: though this is very possible, no overwhelming evidence can really support this common interpretation of Esperanza. She lives in an economically struggling Latino neighborhood that experiences low graduation rates and high unemployment. While I consider there to be substantial obstacles for members of her town to succeed, there are factors I consider to be vital in understanding urban areas like this one.

Notably, I genuinely believe all people can achieve their interpretation of The American Dream, and in this belief, I consider it to be unfair for we, as a society, to continuously blame the government for social or class inequalities. Common questions that someone analyzing this argument needs to ask themselves, would be “why are there more gangs in lower-income areas, why are less people graduating High School in poorer districts, and why more people becoming drug dealers in these places, as opposed to wealthier towns?

Surely, not all schools are funded equally – but funding is based off of test scores and attendance. Whether I agree with this is not what I intend to argue, but at some point, parents and mentors in poorer areas need to advocate education as a means of exiting the ghetto, which is not saying that there are not individual cases of parents and mentors who really want the youth to succeed. Since there is generally a lack of proper adult mentoring and support, children consider school to be a worthless and outdated idea that will only land them a boring occupation.

Parents, in lower income areas, need to instill perseverance and resilience in their children at a young age. Since children lack guidance in these areas, drug dealing and gangs become an integral part of their childhood. Take Bryn Mawr, PA for example, a Pennsylvania district that is blessed enough to have fantastic schools. If parents in this high-income area began disregarding education as an important aspect of becoming societally relevant, there would be lower graduation rates and a surplus of other activities exercised by adolescents.

In Chester, PA, if all parents began instilling good moral values in their children and intensely advocating for the need for education, likely, more students would remain in class; we need stricter role models. In The House on Mango Street, Esperanza’s is faced with challenges that are comparable to her peers. While she may have a better home life, she is still in a poor monetary situation and surrounded by a lot of people who simply do not care if she succeeds or not.

In chapter 22, Esperanza talks about how she has achieved her first job. She notes “In my job I had to wear white gloves. I was supposed to match negatives with their prints, just look at the picture and look for the same one with the negative strip, put it in the envelope, and do the next one. That’s all. I didn’t know where these envelopes were coming from or where they were going. I just did what I was told,” (Cisneros 54).

Surely, Esperanza is a unique young girl who is supporting her family by getting an occupation; in another area, a girl her age would be watching television at home or simply playing outside with other children. The point is, if Esperanza can persevere and attempt to better her circumstance, a larger proportion of people in her area should also be able to. She is lucky to have parents that support her endeavors, but a major problem in this particular latino community and in real life, is that the parents are unsupportive.

This needs to change, but the kids in these poorer areas cannot be blamed; parents need to do their job and instill acceptable and cordial values in their children. People can advance their social or economic standing by means of working hard, but adolescents in poorer areas are plagued by adults who lack mature values. Aside from analyzing lower-income areas, all people can advance their social standing and it is not always the parents mistakes that a child ends up in a bad circumstance.

Truth and Fiction in Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried, written by Marilyn Wesley, references how The American Dream was alive and well during The Vietnam War. What strikes me as the best evidence to support the argument that The American Dream has never become obsolete or impossible, is how people of color fought side by side with white folks during the Vietnam War. For African American men, The American Dream, or some idea of it, was certainly possible to achieve during this overseas conflict. While there was racism and hostile tensions between people in the United States, African Americans could advance their condition by fighting in Vietnam.

Vietnam was the first war to have integrated units, which eventually helped to ease racial tensions in the United States. Generally, all people could advance their class or standing by going to Vietnam and certainly any militia conflict can elevate an individual. War gives people who were otherwise irrelevant an opportunity to fight for their country and be honored for any positive efforts. Marilyn Wesley builds her argument on the premise that O’Brien’s historically inaccurate storytelling is indicative of actual realities and demonstrative of what Vietnam was really like.

Her ideas are interwoven here, when she says “This portrayal records O’Brien’s evident admiration through the characterological codes of superiority – those of breeding and bearing – that do not so much describe an individual enlist him within the ranks of what Martin Green describes as the “aristo-military case,” (Wesley 4). Wesley supports the notion that soldiers, who specifically grew up in rural and societally irrelevant areas, could become unbelievably relevant in Vietnam. Actually, The Things They Carried, itself, is indicative of how anyone can become more prominent, as long as they work extremely hard to make what they desire a reality.

I do not intend to “paint the picture” that social inequality does not exist and that America gives everyone the exact same opportunity – but all United States citizens can contribute to America’s future. If we, as a society, indoctrinate poor adolescents with the idea that they can never advance their life to a more successful state, then unemployment will rise and stimulated or artificial inflation will occur in wealthier areas. The American Dream was once an idea that people considered achievable; a realistic goal that could make everything significantly “okay” in life.

As a pessimist myself, I find it to be my automatic default to assume that the government will continue to, in colloquial terms, “screw us over” and disregard the common person’s desires. All things considered, it is time for society to recognize that there is a major lack of parental guidance in lower-income areas and that, at some point, it is not the “system’s fault”. I hear people say “the system is bad” or “system is unfair”, but if we stop trying to live realistic lives and begin analyzing every piece of legislation as a roadblock to our success, we, as a society, will struggle to economically advance.

In other words, people are giving up. The American Dream is not meant to be an intimidating or degrading notion; it is an idea that symbolizes the will of the people. The government will continue to be somewhat illogical in their social and legal policymaking approaches, because people and organizations cannot be expected to be entirely flawless: people make mistakes. This means that it is up to the common American citizen to take charge of their life and not procrastinate in morally unacceptable ways.

The American Dream should be an individual’s interpretation of the possibility of a more satisfying life, but along the way in history we have become perfectionists in our ideas, desires, and goals. We have begun to rule out The American Dream as a realistic concept because 21st-century life looks and feels too complex, too misleading. Society may be more convoluted than it was previously, but perseverance is not a quality that simultaneously entails individual paranoia and relaxation; get an education and get to work people.

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What is the True Meaning of the American Dream. (2019, September 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from
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