The Failing American Dream: Musings from an Outsider Looking In

by Catie Dargue

I spent the weekend in Loudoun County Virginia, it was beautiful; green rolling hills, lush trees, horses in pasture, vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see, and houses. Those big American dream sort of houses with four garages on the side, three stories high, American flag flying outside the porch, swing set in the back, and a BBQ grill just begging to be used. But there was something very wrong with this picture.

There were no people. The houses were all for sale, no cars in the garage, windows open with no furniture in sight, and no smoke on that BBQ.

Whether the houses are new, people have moved, or they have been repossessedd, I have to ask myself, is this the American Dream? What happened?

I have struggled for a long time my own personal definition of the “American Dream” and though I think it’s different for every individual I do feel that there is a pressure from our country to conform to a certain image, an image that most people would say they are having trouble maintaining.

In high school I knew I would go to college because it was “the next step,” but no one ever explained to me how to afford this. We were told (by our mentors, the Game of Life, and our country) that if we went to college and got a degree we would get a better paying job. It wouldn’t matter what we took out in loans because our well paying job would pay them off for us. I got lucky, I received some federal grants, a local scholarship, help from my father (who selflessly extended his own retirement to put me through school) and I managed to emerge a graduate with only $20,000 of debt, only! I got an okay job about three months later which was the result of connections and not my job history or new BA degree.

Though I was earning pretty good wages for myself loan payments were hard to swing along with rent, credit card bills, and transportation, though I never owned a car until I was 28.

A couple years later I got antsy. I could, if I wanted, slowly climb the corporate ladder towards a job I never imagined having and maybe a comfortable salary, but that wasn’t me. I wanted to pursue my passion for theatre and perhaps get noticed. Additionally, I was keen to the buzz that if I had a master’s degree I could earn even more money at what I was doing. How would I pay for the extra student loans? My really high paying job would help me cover them surely.

At this point I had seen most of my undergraduate friends compete for jobs in Starbucks and local restaurants and I thought, where were all these amazing high paying jobs we were assured? No bother, I’ll go back to school and I’m sure they will await my graduation.

I was lucky to have a part time job during grad school that then hired me full time after because again there were no jobs that I could apply for that utilized my education and my skill set. Now I was about $70,000 in debt, no promise of a better job on the horizon, no car, still renting and putting most of my expenses on my credit cards because I wasn’t getting paid enough to live.

And as it would happen I fell in love and I got married, and then expenses doubled with both of us fresh out of our master’s degrees and the economy tanking.

At this point I’m starting to take stock of this supposed American Dream and where exactly I fit in. I was doing what I loved and not getting paid for it, getting underpaid to do a job I could have done in high school, madly in love with my husband, badly in debt between both of us, traveling and having experiences that I knew many others were jealous of, no home base, no mortgage, no car, no babies on the way, and no burgers on the grill.

Most of my friends who were actually making some money still complained constantly that it wasn’t enough while they seemed to disappear into a working depression where life was dull, money was everything, and passion was a dream of the past.

My trust funder friends from university all moved back in with their parents or lived in an apartment rented or bought by their parents while they figured out what they wanted to do with their lives, and then complained that the $2000 month trust fund was no longer enough to pay for their lifestyle. My poor friends have remained just that, poor.

Some of them were able to pursue engineering degrees and land good jobs that helped at least pull them out of poverty, but most of us are in about the same place.

Underappreciated, overworked, underpaid, and stuck for the next 30 years with debt that we can’t seem to justify anymore.

The sad part is, I still want that ideal American Dream. I want that house that’s so big I don’t know what to do with all the space; I want the four cars in the driveway (the practical car, the fun car, my husband’s car, and the one we’re fixing up on the weekends).

Sometimes I find it so disgusting to want all of this when I know so many people just want a roof (any roof) over their heads and something to eat. Why does this dream get ingrained into so many of our brains? And why do we feel like if we’re not living up to it, we’ve failed somehow?

Why is it that all my friends who have well paying, capitalist market jobs seem unhappy? All those friends with mortgages just want out, and so on.

It seems that people forget that homelessness is just a few steps away from any of us at any moment, and that maybe this American dream we’re all chasing is like a helium balloon caught in a breeze – out of reach and impossible to chase after.

Where in the American Dream does it say that you can have it all, but be sure to step on those below you to get it? Why is it that those with everything share so little and those who have nothing share it all?

I want to know and I don’t know that I ever will.

Through working at the Coalition my perspective on many things have been changed, and perhaps we as a nation need to change our American Dream to be less about greed and more about the intended life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If you’re reading this, try to be thankful today for something you have, and try to help someone else who may need a little extra.

It can only make us a stronger nation as opposed to becoming divided by the dollar in pursuit of the impossible pipe dream.