British Association for American Studies


Book Review: Chasing the American Dream – Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes by Mark Robert Rank, et al

Mark Robert Rank, Thomas A. Hirschl and Kirk A. Foster Chasing the American Dream – Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes Pp. 232 Oxford University Press, 2014. $27.95/£18.99

9780195377910The American Dream is a concept and ideal that millions of people around the word subscribe to wholeheartedly, to the extent that huge numbers risk everything just to have a chance of achieving it. Chasing the American Dream explains just what that dream is, what it means to a plethora of Americans striving for it and assesses whether it is still possible to achieve in the context of an economic downturn. Rank, Hirschl and Foster strike a fine balance between the voices of the American public and a wealth of statistical analysis and have written an intriguing and informative book that contributes greatly to our understanding of contemporary American life. Placed within the field of work on the subject, with works such as Jim Cullen’s The American Dream, Chasing the American Dream provides considerably more emphasis on the economic realities of the American Dream, as opposed to the history of it. Jennifer L. Hochschild’s Facing Up to the American Dream approaches the matter in a similar manner to Rank, Hirschl and Foster, but with her work being published in 1996, Chasing the American Dream is able to fill this gap in the contemporary body of work.

With millions believing in their own version of the dream, tying down a definition is particularly challenging. Chasing the American Dream intelligently brings together the definitions put forward by the interviewees to identify elements of the dream that were mentioned frequently. Foremost among these was the idea that if you work hard, you should be able to achieve economic security for your family. The authors then suggest that having economic security and resources are fundamental to the overall well-being of one’s life and thus are crucial components of the dream. [47]

The authors split their account into three parts:  Part One covers ‘The Dreams’ by focusing on how the American Dream is defined by individual Americans, through the use of interviews with a minor league baseball player, a US district judge and an actor. Each outlines how their lives have run in parallel, or in opposition to, the American Dream. While interviews are used with regularity in each part, it is in this first section where they are the most important, providing definitions of the dream that are referred back to and built upon through the remainder of the book. Part Two, entitled ‘The Pathways’, explores the economic realities of the dream by examining average household incomes, elasticity of earnings between fathers and sons, amongst other data channelled into numerous tables. Part Three, ‘The Meanings’, brings together the data and testimony from the previous parts to assess the current status of the dream in both economic and personal terms. This is particularly important as some of the data in Part Two can often leave the reader seeking further clarification. It should be noted, however, that no such problems arise in Part Three. In use throughout is the methodology referred to as a life table approach, scrutinising patterns and trends over a period of time. This is chosen, so that along with the longitudinal data, the authors can explore the patterns, dynamics and determinant factors of various events that are linked to economic well-being. [9]

american dreamUsing a series of occasionally shocking statistics, the authors challenge some of the pre-conceived ideas about the attainability of the American Dream. The interviews with baseball players, actors, business owners, district judges and other Americans of varying wealth and employment positions, reveal that many believe that hard work should result in economic security, but the authors are careful to explain that whilst this may have been the case in previous generations, it is no longer a guaranteed formula for success. [34] Furthermore, four-fifths of the American population will experience at least one year of significant economic insecurity between the age of 25 and 60. [38] As the book progresses, interviews continue to feature prominently, though the messages conveyed evolve to fit the themes of the chapter. These vary in length, ranging from short two line snippets to half page in-depth contributions, but all add to the discussion at hand.

Many of the interviews conducted feature Americans who have experienced various kinds of economic difficulties, the increasing frequency of which is displayed within the data, predominantly in Part Two. Chasing the American Dream takes care to provide a balanced sample of interviewees, including those that genuinely have lived the ‘rags to riches’ story that is so closely associated with the American Dream. Rank’s interview with Ben Harris, a first generation immigrant and business owner whose investment corporation takes in approximately $1.5 billion annual revenue [87], shows, that for some, the American Dream can be achieved.

Through further data analysis the authors demonstrate that attaining the level of economic security that is often considered to be a successful realisation of the American Dream is in reality harder for everyone than at any time over the past four decades of statistics examined, including the average white male. Median wages for this section of society peaked as far back as 1973 [32], and men have lost ground in terms of wages over the course of four decades, despite an increase in output per employee. [4] Appearing constantly aware of the need to provide a balanced argument, the reader is not told what to think by Rank et al. The example of Ben Harris in Part Two, serves as a delicate reminder that we should be careful not to make an assumption that the American Dream is in a period of decline, but should simply be aware of the current challenges to it.

tableFor the majority, the statistical evidence is handled carefully in order not to overwhelm the reader, but occasionally this is not always maintained, with explanations of figures needing to be read more than once to fully comprehend their significance before the next table is introduced. While this is a relatively minor concern in the grand scheme of things, and is the book’s only shortcoming, it can detract from the free-flowing nature of the writing. Despite this, Chasing the American Dream is a necessary and captivating account of the status of the American Dream that will be of considerable interest to all those who aim to achieve their own definition of it and to all those with an interest in the United States of America.

The most important thing to take away from Chasing the American Dream is that while the American Dream is still alive, it has been wounded over the past four decades. The longitudinal data shows that attaining it has become harder for almost all of the population, but Rank, Hirschl and Foster insist that this is not grounds to believe that it has become impossible. Instead, they suggest that through strengthening the human capital and skills of the American population, the economic security that underpins the American Dream for so many, can become a reality for an increasing number of citizens. [171]


About the Author

Ben is a third year PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church University. In July of 2013 he was awarded an academic scholarship from the History faculty and undertook his first research trip to Washington D.C. in September 2014. He holds a particular interest in Native American history and politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His thesis focuses on the Red Power movement, suggesting that the roots and legacy of the period of Indian activism can be traced further than the traditional narrative suggests.