Center on Assets, Education, and Inclusion

According to Shapiro, the American Dream “is the promise that those who work equally hard will reap roughly equal rewards” (Shapiro, 2004, p. 87); that is, the American Dream holds that this country is a meritocracy where effort and ability are the primary determinants of success. Institutions provide the economic conditions that make it possible for people to believe that their hard work and ability will determine their success or failure. This task is facilitated by Americans’ strong desire to feel as though their destiny can be controlled and that institutions will ‘echo’ their own contributions, rather than work against them.1 Primed to look for evidence of this ‘effort plus ability equals outcomes’ equation, Americans cling to this ideal, even as it recedes in reality for many. There is no evidence that Americans today are less capable or less committed than in previous generations, in the aggregate. Instead, particularly in today’s highly specialized, technology driven, global world, the upward mobility that animates the American Dream is only possible if effort and ability are combined with institutional might.

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