Walt Whitman High School
Second Place Winner, Maryland
Michael Has a Dream
Michael has a dream.
His dream is what many would define as the typical American Dream.
Recently, the Atlantic Monthly reported on a poll conducted for the Aspen Institute (Penn Schoen Berland, working with Burson-Marsteller). In that poll people “generally define [the American Dream] as financial stability and security…” (Atlantic Monthly). This holds true for Michael’s version of the American Dream, as well. There is the romanticized white picket fence, nice house and a family American Dream, and then there is the real American Dream. The one that actually exists today in the Greater Washington D.C. area. It is the idea that regardless of one’s background, or perhaps because of their background, they can work hard enough to achieve success in whatever form that may be. It says people can aspire to be astronauts, doctors, firemen and lawyers when they grow up.
When told by Michael, his dream unfolds slowly. The first thing he wants is a job, a means to an end. Currently, he is dependent on others for the basic necessities of life because he is plagued by homelessness, which he readily acknowledges is through his own doing, and has left him on the bottom rung of society for years. The American Dream has eluded him thus far.
His dream is representative of many others and his situation embodies a segment of society that is as large as it has been in recent history. Michael’s dream of lifting himself from poverty to a higher socioeconomic level is typical of the common conception of chasing the American Dream. His confidence in achieving that dream, however, is fairly atypical for his current situation.
In the Greater Washington area, there exists a particularly wide gulf between haves and have-nots. As the Washington Post reported this summer, “in D.C., the top 10 percent of earners make more than six times the amount as the bottom 10 percent. That disparity in earnings is higher in D.C. than it is in any of the 50 states” (Washington Post). Though the income gap is high, so are hopes. This disparity does not seem to stand in the way of people’s perception that the Dream is achievable. The poll indicates that a majority of people across income levels, ethnic groups and ages agree with the statement, “As long as I am able provide the life I want for myself and my family, it doesn’t matter if others are substantially wealthier than me” (Penn Schoen Berland, working with Burson-Marsteller).
As it turns out, where one lives determines to a fairly large degree one’s chances of achieving the dream.
In their 2014 study, “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States,” the authors showed that the chances of getting ahead, that is, the likelihood of rising from the bottom rung of the ladder to the top, was not the same everywhere (Chetty, Hendren and Kline). The particular metropolitan area one lives in or grew up in matters. For example, Salt Lake City was the best for such upward mobility. The good news for Michael is that the Washington D.C. area has above average rates of mobility. Whether because of educational opportunities or other factors, the chances of escaping poverty are actually better here than in most places.
For myself, growing up in this area, I never once questioned my dreams or thought I lacked any sort of opportunity. In fact, my parents and peers encouraged me to dream big. I remember when I was about five years old, I decided I was going to be the first female president, baseball player, and football player all when I grew up. And no, it does not look like any of those will happen, but I was not afraid to dream, no one ever told me “no”. The “dream” part in American Dream is key. It is easy to say the American Dream is alive for those who are blessed, hardworking, and determined enough to live out their dreams.
But what about the rest of the population who is not necessarily living the dream? Well, that is the beauty of it. It is out there for the taking, no matter your race, religion, gender, or economic status. It may be harder for those coming from disadvantaged areas, but nonetheless it is possible. The fact that Michael has a plan and is working so hard towards that plan gives him a leg up on realizing his goals.
Michael has taken responsibility for his situation and therein lies his advantage. See, Michael never lost his ability to dream despite years of homelessness. By taking responsibility for making his American Dream come true, he has empowered himself. And that self-empowerment has driven Michael, for dreams are what spark action.
Michael’s plan has included a concerted effort to study for his Law School Aptitude Test and work on his law school applications, even as he spends each day trying to find the help he needs to secure the basic necessities of food and shelter.
As Michael’s dream unfolds, a larger dream surfaces.
The American Dream is particularly durable when the dream transcends the desires of the individual dreamer and encompasses the world around him or her, becoming a dream for others. In his “I have a Dream” speech, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King did not dream a dream for his own well-being, but rather a dream for the nation, “a dream that one day this nation [would] rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” (King).
This is where Michael’s dream deepens and spreads to his brothers and sisters throughout Greater Washington. He wants to use his law degree to, among other things, advocate for the homeless, for those without a voice.
For people like Michael, despite the long odds, the dream is still within, alive and thriving for many in our nation’s capital.
Michael has a dream and so do I. What gives Michael a fighting chance, despite his low socio-economic status and all his struggles combined, is that he dares to listen to that little kid inside who still dreams big.
We must surround ourselves with people like Michael. For dreamers can illuminate the flickers of hope within those they encounter. Some may say the American dream is long gone and simply an empty phrase. But little do they know that all it takes is one courageous person with an idea for the whole nation to feel uplifted.
Atlantic Monthly. Special Report: American Dreams. 17 August 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/special-report/american-dreams/>.
—. The American Dream Is Suffering, but Americans Are Satisfied: 15 Charts. 1 July 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/american-dream-suffering/397475/>.
Chetty, Raj, et al. "Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States." 2014.
King, Reverend Martin Luther. ""I HAVE A DREAM ..."." Washington, D.C., 1962.
Penn Schoen Berland, working with Burson-Marsteller. "The Atlantic/Aspen Institute poll, conducted for the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival." 2015.
Washington Post. D.C. has a bigger income disparity than any state in the country. 24 June 2015. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/06/24/d-c-has-a-bigger-income-disparity-than-any-state-in-the-country/>