The Ripon Forum

Volume 48, No. 1

Winter 2014 Issue

In Pursuit of the American Dream

By on July 16, 2014 with 0 Comments


The concept of the American Dream has unique and ongoing relevance to our nation’s history. The individual dream for a freer, better, and more fulfilled life was present from the start. It evolved from the hearts and souls of millions of people who built this country. The Dream has lured tens of millions of people of all nations to America. In many ways, the study of America is a story of individuals of different creed, race, gender, ethnicity, and class attempting to pursue their dreams.

So, with this individual pursuit of a better life as the back drop, researchers at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH, set out to quantify the ubiquitous concept of the American Dream. After 3 years of research and testing, they established the American Dream Composite IndexTM (ADCI) in July 2011. This instrument was built on public views and opinions about the American Dream. Created from a statistically validated survey instrument, the ADCI gauges the country’s current and collective sentiment regarding the extent to which people living in the United States are achieving their American Dream. The 139 question survey reaches at least 1,000 respondents each month from across the nation using the demographic spectrum of the most recent United States Census. Each survey question response is scored on an increasing sentiment scale from 0 to 100 and averaged across all responses. The outcome is a personal American Dream score that indicates how far along, as a percentage, individuals are in achieving their American Dream. The monthly volume is aggregated and scored on the same scale to create the ADCI.


The ADCI is comprised of 35 unique “dreams within the Dream,” with each being measured and scored separately. These dreams range from conventionally defined American Dream aspirations such as home ownership and the attainment of a good job to other concepts not often included in the American Dream discussion such as social status and safety in travel. Collectively these unique dreams are categorized into five unique American Dream sub-indices which represent an individual’s personal economy, well-being, trust in institutions, attitudes towards diversity, and physical environment. Though one sub-index is not held to be more important than another in survey development, the fact remains that the sub-indices are unevenly balanced. The overarching dream of a healthy personal well-being is the largest sub-index based on the number of unique dreams that it reflects, which is followed, in descending order, by personal economy, trust in institutions, diversity, and environment. Therefore, as we look for the largest driver of the Dream, we find it exists in one’s contentment, health, and prosperity in life. It is important to note that this hierarchy was not built deterministically. It is the direct result of the sentiment of people pursuing the American Dream.

Fundamentally, the American Dream is about hope – the hope that every individual of whatever status has the chance to be all that he or she can be.

One of the more interesting findings from the ADCI is that Americans consistently rate attitudes towards diversity higher than all other sub-indices. As such, assimilation of differences with others and attitudes towards diversity is the area where Americans are furthest along in their Dream quest. Respondents also exhibited very positive sentiment regarding their personal well-being. Unfortunately, the dreams of having a strong personal economy and a society where one can trust institutions lag significantly behind. They are currently the largest American Dream inhibitors for people living in the United States. Within these broad segments, respondents have indicated that they struggle the most with financial security, trust in government, and trust in business. Improvement in these three domains will most quickly and effectively improve the quality of life of people living in America and better enable the pursuit of the American Dream by everyone.

As of January 2014, the ADCI stands at 65.17. This means that, as a nation, we are 65.17% of the way to fully achieving the American Dream. There is both good news and bad news in this reading. To begin, the average ADCI score from 2011 to the present has increased each year. Thus, the overall quality of life of people in America is steadily improving. Moreover, their personal economies have improved in near lockstep with the overall quality of life during this time and serve as a key driver of the ADCI increase. Unfortunately, the other overarching sub-indices are not behaving in the same manner. The trust Americans have in institutions has regressed over the last year and a half, largely driven by the lack of trust people have in government. The trust in government measure stands at 38.74, which indicates that Americans believe they are only 38.74% of the way to living in a society where they can fully trust the government. Prospectively, this can be viewed as good news as there is plenty of room to grow in this area.

Fundamentally, the American Dream is about hope — the hope that every individual of whatever status has the chance to be all that he or she can be. It is America’s highest aspiration and promise and is inextricably bound to our nation’s ideals of freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity for all people. Individuals’ pursuits, collectively, constitute the moral and economic engines that drive this nation forward. As the ADCI surveys show, there is a direct relationship between the number of individuals who pursue the American Dream and the health of society.

The greater the number of people who pursue their dreams, the healthier America’s economy is. Therefore it is not surprising that the ADCI has proven to be an excellent predictor of key economic activity. Ultimately, if our nation can effectively address the lack of trust we have in our institutions, individual economies will improve and so too will the quality of life of people living in America.  RF

Greg Smith is the Chair of the Management Information Systems Department, and Roger Fortin is the Academic Vice President and Provost for Xavier University.

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