The American Dream—How Much Does It Cost?
Issue   |   Tue, 04/03/2018 - 19:50

Hip hop tycoon Jay-Z said it best in his single release, “The Story of OJ”: “Financial freedom my only hope/F*** living rich and dying broke.” Cogently embodying the capitalist mantra of success, these lines conjure an image of power, freedom and legacy all converging towards one thing: wealth. Jay-Z’s song encapsulates a mutual understanding among Americans that the dollar sign is more symbolic of the American Dream than Lady Liberty herself.

Americans also recognize that simply having money doesn’t equate to freedom. As a market society, the United States demands every one of its citizens pay for their necessities. By setting the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour, policy makers in Congress have decided that food, shelter, water and basic health care can all be covered with an annual income of $15,080. Those that live in the 22 states that only require this federal minimum from employers barely surpass the Department of Health and Human Service federal poverty line for one person households at $12,141. In other words, many people who work 40-hours a week with minimum pay survive on fumes and are not far from living in destitution. “Dying broke” is a reasonable fear to hold in the United States — most Americans aren’t expected to thrive in the first place.

Access to decent housing, transportation, groceries, health care, education, clothing and some retirement savings comprise the common notion of what the American Dream is. According to a study conducted in 2014 by USA Today, living out this American Dream for a household of four would cost roughly around $130,000 per year. This annual sum is nearly two and a half times larger than the median household income, which is estimated to be $59,039.

The message is clear: living out the American Dream is pie in the sky. Pundits and self-aggrandizing economic theorists like to advance the theory that everyone can be rich and successful in our capitalist economy, but the numbers tell a different story. Let’s play the numbers game for a second. According to the Washington Post, the richest one percent own, 40 percent of all the nation’s wealth, which means 99 percent of the country only owns 60 percent of what’s left of the pie. The more money one person owns, the less another person gets to have. The notion that owning more doesn’t hinder anyone else’s socioeconomic climb is as illusory as the Dream itself. Even if I get richer, others can too, right? Wrong. Quite the reverse: the whole point of the Dream is that you get to live above and beyond the meager lifestyle of subsistence. The Dream is not meant to be lived out by everyone in America.

The true cost of the American Dream is not the $130,000 price tag, but a hierarchical culture that sensationalizes and valorizes living beyond basic needs. The cost of the American Dream is that everything can be bought, and with a market society that brings the “finer” things in life only to the few, most of us are left wondering who Lady Liberty is holding the torch for.

If financial freedom is our only hope, then what we need isn’t more money to ascend to the heavenly gates of the Dream. What we need is a Dream that doesn’t rest on flimsy pyramids of dollar bills. What we need is an American Dream that separates opulence from freedom, that unites hope with equality.