The American dream is circling the drain

The impact of inflation, student loans and inequality is taking its toll

Graphic by: Sienna Parmelee | Production Assistant

According to the Library of Congress, the American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of fortuitous circumstances of birth or positions.

But is that dream feasible? According to a 2014 CNN poll, 59% of those polled agreed that “the American dream has become impossible for most people to achieve.” 

A big problem is that most Americans cannot get ahead financially, and with inflation on the rise, those struggles are only increasing. According to a report by PYMNTS and LendingClub, New Reality Check: The Paycheck-to-Paycheck Report, 61% of individuals were living paycheck to paycheck in December 2021. The results have been broken down, showing that 70% of millennials (ages 27-38) were living paycheck to paycheck, alongside 65% of generation Z (ages 7-22), almost 60% of Gen X (ages 39-54) and about 54% of baby boomers and seniors (ages 55+). 

Another critical factor causing financial challenges for Americans is student loans. Investopedia outlined that student loans have reached a record high, with nearly 1/3 of all students going into debt to complete their education. Furthermore, the average student debt is $40,904 per person, with a collective debt of $1.75 trillion. 

Debt is seeing a record high alongside college costs that are similarly increasing, since 1980 average tuition costs have risen by 180%. According to Forbes, the average price to attend a four-year college with tuition, fees, room, and board was $10,231 annually in 1980, and now the average is $28,775. 

Millennials are the first generation in recent history to be financially worse off than their parents. Many millennials took to a Reddit thread where they shared their frustrations and how they feel they’ve been cheated or dealt a lousy hand in life. 

“I’m 36, married, with a toddler. I make minimum wage as a CNA. My husband makes a couple of dollars over minimum with a bachelor’s, master’s, and a two-year medical certification. Neither of us would be able to afford our 1-bedroom apartment on our own. We each only work on the days each other is off because we cannot afford childcare and ‘make too much’ for childcare subsidies. It would cost more than I make per month to put my kid in a daycare so that I can work,” one Reddit user said. 

While this may seem like complaining to some, it’s valuable to see how inflation, student loans, and other aspects affect the financial status of individuals, specifically younger Americans. Even when doing ‘everything right’ many young Americans struggle financially and no longer aspire to the American Dream. 

There is another major flaw within the very idea of the American Dream; just like American society as a whole, it emphasizes the role of the individual as they strive to reach their goals. While goal setting and being motivated can be incredibly beneficial, it’s also important to acknowledge certain social constraints and their role in individuals achieving their goals. For example, socioeconomic, racial, or gender inequality can impact individuals and groups, making it harder to reach their goals. While numerous people can have the same dreams, the playing field is far from equal. 

The American dream has become nothing but a fantasy that feels impossibly out of reach to many hard-working Americans.