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Why “The American Dream” is actually a nightmare

Not only is the philosophy behind “The American Dream” misleading, but it’s also dangerous. It ignores the economic disparities faced by most Americans due to discriminatory ideologies like racism and sexism.

But what is “The American Dream?” 

In short, it’s the idea that every person from every background has an equal opportunity to succeed. It suggests that financial prosperity is determined by nothing more than ability and achievement. 

ghostly figure in front of run down house

Although the constitution declares all men are guaranteed the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the Founding Fathers didn’t include much of the modern U.S. population in their definition of “men.” 

Instead, they handed those rights to white, land-owning men, and everyone else has been excluded from the “The American Dream” since. Let’s get into what that looks like today, and what you should do about it. 

Marginalized people have fewer economic opportunities.

I don’t need to tell you there’s an enormous wealth gap between non-Hispanic white males in this country and everyone else. 

Part of that is the result of occupational segregation— or the intentional assignment of women, immigrants, and people of color to low-income jobs. 

As a result, marginalized Americans — people whose experiences exist on the outer margins of mainstream America — have endured generations of limited economic opportunities, which effectively ruin their chances at “The American Dream.” 


In the conversation about systemic economic hardship, we can’t overlook the world’s largest minority group: people with disabilities. 

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists to protect disabled workers from workplace discrimination, many employers use loopholes to weed out disabled employees during the hiring process.

One example of this is when disabled journalist, Wendy Lu, came across a job ad for a General Assignment Reporter that listed completely unrealistic requirements. Along with the expected “ability to report breaking news” and other reasonable requirements, applicants had to be able to “reach, bend, lift, push, pull and carry a minimum of 25 lbs,” and type a minimum of 40 words per minute (WPM).

Despite being qualified, she couldn’t apply because of those discriminatory demands. 

College is more expensive than ever before.

Twenty years ago, you could pay for college tuition by working a part-time job during the semester and graduate debt-free. Students today aren’t so lucky. 

In-state tuition for public universities has increased by 212% in the last 20 years, which means most people have to take out loans they’ll be paying off for decades after graduation. 

Though a sad reality, many young hopefuls jump at what they feel is an opportunity to secure their financial future. After all, college graduates earn 80% more than high school graduates — a fact teachers drill into our heads until we walk across that high school auditorium stage. 

Yes, earning a degree does open doors in the corporate and financial worlds, but also leaves the average graduate with crippling and long-lasting debt. 

Consequently, many degree holders can’t afford to buy financial assets or build capital without wealthy connections. 

A small loan of $1 million, anyone?

The top 10 percent owns 78 percent of the wealth.

As I’ve mentioned, degrees are common prerequisites to white-collar and otherwise high-paying office jobs. The salaries from these careers set workers up to own assets, invest, plan for retirement, and more. 

Yet, demographics play a huge part in who ends up in career fields and job positions that pay well. Most families passing down wealth and financial opportunities can do so because of unfair economic advantages.

For example, the most educated people in America are Black women, yet white men are the wealthiest demographic.

The resulting limited economic mobility, paired with several financial gaps, allows a small percentage of the population to hoard most of the wealth. 

The American Dream is a nightmare; chase financial freedom instead.

I made a point of establishing the difference between “The American Dream” and “financial freedom” because one concept provides false hope. Meanwhile, the other inspires you to be aware of your circumstances and move accordingly. 

To achieve financial freedom, you’ve got no choice but to focus on (and overcome) the barriers that complicate your wealth-building.

First, identify what “financial freedom” means to you. This part of the process is crucial since everyone pictures that concept differently. A financially free person might have:

  • Zero debt 
  • Ownership of financial assets
  • Secure retirement savings

Figure out your version of financial freedom and then start working toward it. That’s a bit of an abstract task, so here are a few actionable steps to take right now:

Determine your career path

I attended college for two years as a psychology major because I thought it was my only choice. I love psychology and I respect all mental health professionals, but that wasn’t the path for me. 

Today, I’m a personal finance writer and blogger who works from the comfort of my home. I’m delighted with my work. I never imagined this reality would be possible in high school, yet here I am. 

From this, I’ve learned to dream past the career boxes into which I’d forced myself. The gig economy provides so many options for people who aren’t looking to work in traditional fields or corporate jobs. 

Regardless of what you choose to do, know that it’s your choice. You will encounter obstacles, but remember you’re not alone. Find your people, lean on them, and let their support fuel you.

Improve financial literacy

There’s a financial literacy gap between the wealthy and the working class, which is both the cause and result of discriminatory economic practices. 

Because the marginalized typically have lower-paying jobs, they make less money, and therefore, tend to be less educated about financial products and trends. This leads to poor money decision-making, and the cycle continues. 

If financial freedom is your goal, you need to take it upon yourself to learn more about the economy and brush up on your financial skills. I suggest you start with money management, then make your way up to investing and similar wealth-building endeavors. 

35 Voices in Personal Finance You Should Follow …

Develop money management skills

Money management skills are financial techniques that allow you to track your spending and handle your finances responsibly.

These skills include:

  • Building a budget
  • Understanding credit
  • Learning how to save
  • Planning for the unexpected

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking “save your money” is lazy advice, but this is more about the habits you’ll form while you commit to saving. 

You might only put away $500 in a year, but you’ll have learned how to make a profit from your income, which is essentially the point of investing. Budgeting will teach you how to organize and plan out your finances, and that will come in handy once your income starts multiplying.

Article written by Lyric Mott, a freelance writer and founder at Nitty-Gritty Growth, a blog dedicated to self-improvement through productivity and personal finance. 

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  1. When I was in college I had no idea about networking and as a result I worked various low paying positions such as maid, cashier etc. I always wondered how some students seemed to get amazing jobs in HR (my major). Those low paying positions can be incredible difficult to work your way out of if you do not have general knowledge about how the career system works. Most financial blogs completely ignore that some people are unable to maximize their options because of a lack of knowledge that is inherent to other groups.

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