The fading promise of the American dream

There is nothing wrong with a little over-the-top optimism and hope. It is inevitable and even healthy, if it makes people feel good and inspires them to rewarding behavior. The trouble with our American Dream infatuation is that it transcends these common-sense boundaries. It has become a substitute for addressing real problems and a collective act of self-deception.

The invocation of the American Dream presumes that there are no conflicts among groups. With the correct mix of personal responsibility and government programs, everyone can achieve the Dream. But some conflicts cannot be wished away. One is between young and old. As baby boomers retire, federal spending on the elderly will soar. This will help retirees attain their dreams, while making it harder — through higher taxes or lower public services — for the young to realize theirs.

What also cannot be wished away are on-the-ground realities that impede middle-class status for more Americans. Only one-third of children born to the poorest fifth of Americans graduate high school with at least a 2.5 grade-point average and without having become a parent or been convicted of a crime, reports a Brookings Institution study.