The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 11, 2017

If we all believe in the American dream, why is DACA controversial?

September 11, 2017

In an era marked by divisiveness, political leaders across the spectrum have been unified in their call to spark upward mobility and restore the promise of the American dream.

Meanwhile, beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have embodied the American dream through their resilience and their accomplishments. They are overwhelmingly employed, paying taxes, and pursuing education and homeownership.

So why is DACA controversial? Why have we not eagerly embraced the success stories of these young people as part of our country’s collective narrative? Perhaps our collective belief in the American dream is fractured—or worse. Some Americans may believe the dream is available to some but not to others.

Americans are losing faith in the American dream

Polling finds that white, middle-aged Americans are least likely to report they are living the American dream, or will live the dream, compared with all other groups. In contrast, over 8 in 10 African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos are optimistic about it.

These perceptions stand in contrast to data on economic mobility, which show that white children have more upward mobility from the bottom of the economic ladder than black children, and white adults are more likely to have higher income than their parents did, relative to black adults. Yet, a recent study of white working-class Americans found they are divided on whether their social and economic standing has gone up or down in their lifetime, and fewer than half still believe in the American dream.

What is driving pessimism among some and not others? Does this pessimism reveal that some among us are recognizing that we may not truly live in a meritocracy? Does it suggest an expectation that some children are entitled to inherit the American dream, but others are not?

On this latter point, the legal fairness of DACA was cited as driving the recent decision, but another reason cited officially was that jobs taken by recipients could have gone to other Americans. This suggests that some see only a fixed set of opportunities in our country, to which those born here are more entitled. These perceptions persist even as evidence shows that economic growth is linked to a growing population, which, for the US, is largely dependent on immigration and the future labor force participation of immigrants and their children.

DACA recipients exemplify the American dream

It is no accident that DACA recipients are called dreamers. They are the realized accomplishments of their parents’ aspirations for something better for their families and their children. They are young and are only beginning their adult lives.

If they follow the same patterns of success that second-generation immigrants have had in this country, we might expect them to have earnings at least 5 to 10 percent above their parents, as well as higher-status occupations and increased homeownership. The evidence on the economic mobility of second-generation immigrants and the achievements of DACA recipients suggest the American dream is alive and well.

We are united as a citizenry in our belief and shared rhetoric that we are the only country where the American dream is possible—that someone can start life with modest means, work hard, and prosper.

Paul Ryan recently described “this beautiful notion, the American idea that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life.” Similarly, Barack Obama has called the American story one where “success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth and privilege, it depends on effort and merit.”

Yet, evidence suggests that we remain polarized about whether opportunity is truly available to everyone and what to do about it. Our challenge as a country is to grapple with whether we truly believe that everyone—regardless of legal status, country of origin, race, or ethnicity—is entitled to the American dream, and if so, to create policies that support those striving for better lives.

Illustration by Eva Bee/Getty Images.


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