What is today's American Dream?
- 28 March 2011
- From the section US & Canada
They may not have called it the American Dream but for centuries people have gone to America in search of freer, happier, and richer lives. But is today's American Dream a mythical concept or still a reality?
Isabel Belarsky's tiny Brooklyn apartment fills with the sound of her father's voice. Sidor Belarsky sings an Aria in Russian and 90-year-old Isabel, her lips painted an elegant red, sways gently to the song coming from her stereo.
Isabel speaks with pride about her father's talent and his success as an opera singer: Albert Einstein was such a fan she says that he invited Sidor to accompany him on his speaking engagements and would ask him to sing to the audience.
How the Belarskys came to be in America is an extraordinary tale that Isabel loves to tell.
"It was the Mormons!" she says, laughing. "They couldn't be more different from us Jews!"
It was the offer of a six-month job by a Mormon college president, who had seen Sidor singing in Leningrad, that enabled the Belarskys to escape from Stalin's Russia in 1930.
"Our dream was being in America," Isabel says. "They loved it. My mother could never think of Russia, it was her enemy and my father, he made such a wonderful career here."
Like generations of immigrants before them, the Belarskys came to America in search of freedom - to them the American Dream meant liberty.
But Isabel says it promised even more.
"The Dream is to work, to have a home, to get ahead, you can start as a janitor and become the owner of the building."
The American Dream is not written into the constitution but it is so ingrained in the national psyche that it might as well be.
Many point to the second sentence in the Declaration of Independence - the "certain unalienable rights" that include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" - as the "official" version of the phrase.
But it was actually relatively recently - in 1931 - that the term was popularised, when historian James Truslow Adams wrote in The Epic of America that the Dream means "a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank".
'A quest for Coca Cola'
The concept of the American Dream has not stayed static.
For European immigrants, like Isabel, fleeing persecution in the first half of the last century, the Dream was about a life without persecution.
But somewhere in the middle of the last century the dream changed.
As America's post war economy boomed the new arrivals wanted more than freedom - they wanted a share of the prosperity as well.
In the 1950s, TV commercials featured twinkly housewives proudly showing off kitchens filled with gleaming appliances. The quest for liberation became a quest for Coca Cola.
TV shows played their part in pushing the new economic Dream, starring perfect families in houses with picket fences and two cars in the driveway.
As the century wore on, the materialistic slant of the dream overtook the political side.
Dallas and Dynasty suggested this was a country where it was possible to become not just rich, but filthy rich.
'This is not America'
But without the inspiring glue of freedom the dream became vulnerable to more prosaic things - like economic downturns.
We met 18-year-old Cheyanne Smith at the "Make The Road New York" community centre in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
She arrived in New York from the Caribbean seven years ago. Having watched endless American TV shows as a child she thought she knew what to expect when her family moved to Brooklyn.
Instead, the deprivation of one of New York's poorest neighbourhoods shocked her.
"I thought this is not America because this is not what I see on television," she says.
Like Cheyanne, 18-year-old Franscisco Curiel is also ambitious. He came from Mexico City three years ago to go to college here but he's worried that Brooklyn's schools aren't going to give him a good enough education.
"The system is broken, we can't get the superior education that they supposedly want to give us," he says.
Through the centuries America's immigrants have endured terrible hardship and sacrifice so that they and their children can get ahead.
Perhaps it's not surprising to hear the members of the Bushwick youth group lament the multiple, low paid jobs that their parents must do simply to get the rent paid and put food on the table.
What is startling is that these bright, ambitious youngsters just don't believe that talent and hard work are enough to ensure they will ever have a shot at that mythical American Dream.
This article is part of a week-long series exploring the past, present and future of the American Dream. You can watch Katty's TV report on Monday's BBC World News America on PBS and the BBC World News channel.