The significance of the idea of the American Dream linked with issues of poverty and inequality
When I think of the term American Dream it is directly connected with associations as freedom, chances and success. Hollywood productions like The Great Gatsby or The Pursuit of Happiness, in which people have made it from rags to riches, come into my mind. But by taking a deeper look into that topic it becomes clear that the American Dream is much more like just that. I also think of very egocentric concepts of life which are depicted in these stories and which have nothing to do with a respectful, empathetic and tolerant community. The questions rise what it actually is, what we are ‘dreaming’ of - is it just about prosperity or do we really pursue happiness regardless to money? And: Am I interested in the development of the community? What has it to do with my personal (American) Dream? When it comes to the American Dream concepts of gender, class, race and ethnicity can and have to be taken into consideration especially when we link the photograph “Bread Line during the Louisville Flood, Kentucky” from 1937 by Margaret Bourke- White with that topic what will be done in this essay.
Before the critical executions in this essay relate to this photograph it displays the meaning of the term American Dream and its connection to inequality and poverty in general.
Inequality is one result of the concept of the American Dream and has to be regarded after defining the expression in general. The expression American Dream was coined by James Truslow Adams who said that it is a “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” (Adams 317). According to that, the term counts for everyone in the US and focus on a massive improvement of life (- style) regardless to the ethnic background and financial means. It is only measured by one’s abilities and performance. If that concept worked there would not be arbitrary inequality, there would only be a diverse society in which everyone was measured by his or her output. The focus would rather lie on performance than on racial or ethnical diversity. Unfortunately, the history and the present show another reality. That is the reason why the American Dream is often called American Nightmare.
This concept does exactly what it claims to avoid: It divides society instead of providing equality. In some cases, there are in fact equal chances at the beginning for everyone but on the way up - by reaching the goal - classes are created automatically because not everyone is able to reach the goal. The American Dream only works with individual- based severe competition in which only few are able to win the price. And these few will eventually form a class as a result. It is difficult to change that process. That could only be done by changing minds - away from individualism to collectivism that focuses on the well- being of a society as a whole.
The American Dream is not only interlocked with issues of inequality as just said but with issues of poverty as well. When one thinks further, poverty is a logical effect of the American Dream. I want to put it in an example: In German the phrase vom Tellerwäscher zum Millionär (from dishwasher to millionaire) exist. There is the phrase from rags to riches in English but that does not exactly portray what I want to say. The German term depicts that there is a way from a low occupational position to a high state in society what also implies the low state in society a dishwasher, as an example, has. There it can be seen that there is poverty (and inequality) in the beginning of the way up to a millionaire and there will be still poverty in the end, even though one reaches the state of a millionaire, because there will always be a dishwasher - metaphorical said. There would be no need for an American Dream if there were no poor. The statement “[c]lass is for European democracies or something else - it isn’t for the United States of America. We are not going to be divided by class.” (Zhao 117) of George W. Bush gets pointless from that point of view.
It is interesting to link these thoughts about the American Dream related to inequality and poverty with an artwork of Margaret Bourke- White - the popular photograph “Bread Line during the Louisville Flood, Kentucky” from 1937. Firstly, it is important to see the context of the time this photograph was made. It was shot in 1937 what was during the Great Depression (1929- 1939). Therefore, it was a time of unemployment, financial crisis and homelessness. But to be more precisely, it points to the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937 (just like the title sais) where about 400 people lost their lives and one million people became homeless (Cosgrove 1). Due to the preceding flourishing twenties, the discrepancy to poverty was big and this is exactly what is shown on this picture where the men and women - the victims of the flood - are waiting at a relief station to get clothes and food.