On the 4th of July this year the United States celebrated its 241st year of independence from the British Commonwealth. For some communities in the United States this “birthday” celebration is an annual (sometimes painful) reminder that people have been resisting subjugation and fighting for freedom since colonizers arrived in the Americas. Independence Day in the United States is also a reminder to some individuals that there is a profound difference between the ideals of freedom and equity, which are central components of the American Dream, and their lived experience.
The Ford Foundation has been “talking and thinking a lot about how inequality affects our ability to achieve the fabled American Dream: the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules then you should be able to get ahead.” The American Dream is a fable for some populations of people in the United States, particularly Native Americans and Black people, because no amount of hard work has ever been enough and the rules for upward mobility have changed constantly. In effort to “jump-start honest discussions about the role of inequality and opportunity in our lives,” the Ford Foundation, in partnership with Moving Up, developed a “tool that aims to help us examine the many experiences, systems, and institutions that have helped—or hindered—our path to where we are today.” Moving Up is an initiative “based on the premise that if we want to engage people on the issues like poverty, inequality and opportunity, then we must find new ways to bring them into the conversation.” Based on a series of questions about who you are, your parents, where you grew up, your childhood, your health, your education, your luck, your friends, your use and access to public services, your character and your effort, the tool, a calculator of the aforementioned factors, produces an American Dream Score.
My American Dream Score is 74/100. The message with my score stated that, “while hard work contributes to success, each of us have encountered different people, experiences, systems, and services that have helped or hindered our efforts. Your score of 74 means you’ve had some factors working for you, but more that you’ve had to work to overcome.” As for how my score compared to the range of scores, a score of 53 or less means that “nearly every factor has been working in your favor. If your score is 54-65 then the majority of factors have been in your favor. If your score is 66-79 then you’ve had more working against you than for you. If your score is 80 or higher then almost every factor has been working against you.”
The tool identified factors that helped me “move up,” including that I was “able to tap into a strong social network, grew up in place great for raising kids;” had “access to a good education;” was “bless[ed] by some good fortune;” and “benefited from public goods and services.” I have a lot of questions about the evidence and validity of the algorithm the tool is predicated on. Despite my questions, one of the factors in the calculation, “where you grew up,” included reference to research by Raj Chetty and his Equality of Opportunity Project. This factor is of particular interest to me as a student of the relationship between physical space and power. Chetty “has identified five factors that are correlated to neighborhoods that promote upward mobility: two parent households, good schools, high social capital, and low segregation and inequity.” Patriots fighting in the American War of Independence understood that freedom is linked to land. That link has not changed, which is why neighborhood (i.e., residential location) matters. In a blog I wrote earlier this year, Marching Peacefully Towards Being More Separate and More Unequal?, I discusses the importance of understanding how individual decisions about residential location affects inequality.
The tool also identified the factors I worked to overcome as: “the economy wasn’t as strong when you entered the job market, needed to develop strong character traits to cope, your parents may have struggled to give you all you needed, had to deal with some tough things as a kid, experienced some health issues, had to work harder than most, some may have held your race against you, you were more likely to be discriminated against based on gender.” The authors state that the calculator does not weigh any one factor more than the other and argue that “while research generally shows that some factors correlate more to success than others, that doesn’t mean they were more important to you personally.” While there are likely others, a critical factor not accounted for in the calculation is the ability for one to be able to be one’s authentic self as a (im)mobility factor. Equity cannot be achieved without inclusivity; inclusivity cannot be achieved without authenticity. Being able to be one’s authentic self is not a factor one can work to overcome. What one often does is suppress their authentic self after considering the tradeoffs (i.e. weighing the cost and benefits) of being one’s authentic self. I am constantly making decisions about where and how to show up in places and spaces. Sometimes I choose to show up just as Dr. Green, which pays into the politic of credential capital, and sometimes I show up as La Tonya, which to some immediately signals that I am a Black woman possibly with a certain political leaning. While this suppression of authentic self is probably not a mental or spiritual tax individuals in the dominant culture and/or in certain contexts pay, suppressing my authentic self is a strategy I employ often as I try determine how to live free; being upwardly mobile and pursuing the American Dream is a luxury until equity is achieved.
Advancing equity requires understanding how power is distributed and maintained; it also requires addressing the impact of power inequities. Equity is one part of economic, political, racial, and social justice. The United States has never had equity and we do not have a shared vision of concrete outcomes. In order to create a shared vision we must be willing to talk openly not only about race–including having honest dialogue about attitudes, culture, false and singular narratives, policies, practices, and procedures that reinforce differential outcomes or fail to eliminate them–but also how all individuals can participate and prosper in this country to the best of their ability regardless of ability, economic class, geographic location, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Advancing equity is not a destination, a fable, or a dream. We can create a fair inclusion country, and world, where we can truly live our dreams. In order to build that society, we must be willing to both share our individual and collective stories authentically and to listen deeply to each other’s individual and collective stories without gaslighting, the doubting or questioning of one’s experience, memory, or perception. If you are uncertain exactly where to begin, begin with the Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America website; you can utilize the tool, post your score, share your story, and read other people’s story. Utilizing our individual American Dream Score could be a provocative (or safe) jumping-off point or subject matter to continue to have honest conversations about the role of inequality and opportunity in our lives and communities.
La Tonya Green, PhD is FFI’s Director of Evidence and Knowledge. She is responsible for generating knowledge and evidence about the applicability and effectiveness of the Full Frame Approach and the Five Domains of Wellbeing. La Tonya is heading up FFI’s race and equity initiatives.