Forbes recently named Kylie Jenner one of the “60 richest self-made women.” Ann Friedman isn’t having it:
America is not the level playing field that places such as Forbes pretend it is, and Jenner illustrates perfectly that, while your odds of going from rich to filthy rich are still pretty good, your odds of going from rags to riches have never been slimmer.
Americans love “rags to riches” stories. We mythologize immigrants who came to our shores with nothing and rose to become titans of industry. We celebrate women like Dolly Parton and Oprah who were born into poverty and achieved greatness through talent and determination.
We’re believers. Hopers. Dreamers. America isn’t a country of what is, but what could be.
The term “American Dream” is surprisingly recent. It traces back to the 1931 book The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams, in which he describes —
“That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Like Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Adams is describing a vision and a hope, not a reality.
Yet too many of us act as if we’re already living in the American dream, that our country is essentially fair, that everyone has the same opportunities if they just apply themselves.
According to Pew, only 1 in 5 people think that the American dream is out of reach for their family. America’s founding myth is that anyone can find success by working hard. Even as inequality grows — particularly along race and gender lines — we want to believe that “self-made” millionaire status is as achievable for the African American daughters of unmarried teens in Mississippi as it is for Westchester-raised Exeter students and reality television stars.
Friedman argues that by focusing on the Kylie Jenners and Mark Zuckerbergs, society is turning a blind eye to the poorest Americans who desperately need our attention.
But I think it’s actually worse than that.
When we celebrate the notion that anyone could become the next billionaire, we encourage this mass delusion that good times are always just around the corner. Sure, money might be tight right now, but you could strike gold tomorrow!
The reality is, most Americans are much closer to becoming poor than becoming rich. Economic mobility works both ways. You can climb, but you can also fall, and fall fast. A dozen things could wipe out your life’s savings overnight, including illness, addiction, fire, fraud, and crime.
The smart play, then, is to take precautions against events that could send you into poverty. That’s why you go to the doctor. That’s why you buy insurance. That’s why you pay taxes for police and firefighters.
Doing these things isn’t pessimism. It’s realism.
But in America, reality isn’t a priority — after all, we’ve got The Dream. So instead of funding safety net programs, we cut them. We deregulate industries and destabilize health insurance markets.
None of this makes sense if we acknowledge that we’re all likely to need these programs one day. Eventually, fate’s arrow is going to point at us, and our friends and family. We are much more likely to become broke than billionaires. We need to act accordingly.