Economic Crisis, Self-Blame, & The Dangerous Underbelly Of The American Dream

By Jonathan Donald Jenner

The American Dream, by attributing success to personal attributes like hard work and trumpeting the idea of a ‘level playing field,’ also causes people to blame themselves when they experience economic difficulty. This occurs even when the hardship is clearly not caused by the actions of individuals, but from the structural failures of capitalism[i].  This misplaced blame has dangerous effects on our health, affects our ability to mount viable responses to the structural failures of capitalism, and worse, allows snake-oil salesmen to direct that blame outwards – on immigrants, the poor, and other marginalized groups.

The American Dream has such a hold on the American imagination, in part, because it’s our great equalizer. Though some of us are poor and a few of us are rich, we can all still work hard. And we live in a structure, so the Dream goes, where hard work can make you at least not poor. Never mind that the Dream is substantially untrue, or that whatever elements of truth it may have had are eroded by the day: substantial amounts of Americans still believe it! The hold on America’s collective imagination has been weakened by the Great Recession, but it’s still there – last year, according to the NY Times, 64% of American’s believed that hard work can make one rich, down from 72% at the beginning of the Great Recession. Another poll though, by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that only half of Americans believe in the American Dream[ii].

‘Despair,’ from Zoja Trofimiuk’s Raw Emotion Series, 2012.

The pernicious underbelly of the American Dream is that it individualizes success and/or failure. Because individual hard work means success, the necessary corollary is that a lack of success means some deficiency of effort or poor individual decisions(sociologist Victor Tan Chen calls this view ‘meritocratic morality’).  Sociologists have found, over and over, that Americans, in particular, blame themselves when they are out of work, or lose their homes. This holds, crucially, for cases where there is a clear structural element to unemployment, such as when auto companies left Detroit for non-unionized pastures, and out-of-work auto-workers blamed themselves for their lack of work. This phenomena has become so pronounced that public health scholars and officials have started to look at economic crises as crises of public health – part of which stems from effects of lost income on people (e.g. inability to purchase healthy food), and part of which stems from stress, brought about in part by feelings of personal failure (e.g. increased blood pressure, unhealthy coping mechanisms).  The American Journal of Preventative Medicine has even linked a jump in suicide rates amongst middle-aged Americans to the Great Recession.

Moreover, the American Dream contributes to our collective inability to accurately assign blame for the Great Recession, and hurts our ability to collectively overcome the conditions that  create economic crises. The American Dream exists on the great American overused sports motif – the ‘fair playing field,’ (if it didn’t exist there, hard work couldn’t equal success). Again, never mind history. Or that some pendejos get small loans from their parents. Angelia Wilson, reviewing Victor Tan Chen’s research on auto workers from Michigan, notes how workers in Michigan assigned blame for the Financial Crisis of 2008:

“Similarly, interviewees applied [meritocratic morality] to ‘banks’, ‘executives’ and ‘managers’ who succeed without working hard or by cheating the system. Frustration arising from the Great Recession is directed to those who ‘didn’t play fair’, not on the game itself.”

Think about the various calls for justice in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis: people demanded that individual bankers be hauled into the stockades, but capitalism (in particular, its neoliberal subspecies), was rarely called to account for its bad behavior[iii]. Of course, there are many reasons that Americans are confused about the causes of the Great Recession, (including red-herring causes offered up by economists who have been trained to ask small questions).  Yet it’s not hard to imagine that the American Dream has operated, on our collective psyche, to erase the possibility of a rigged game – rigged in the interests of those who make profits against the interests of those who make wages and salaries – by embedding the idea of a level playing field into an American fairytale, that, in spite of serious evidence to the contrary, is believed by a large part of us (≈50-64 percent of Americans).

It’s really hard to blame yourself for a long time (as the health outcomes linked above show). So when someone offers a narrative that absolves personal blame for economic misfortune – that immigrants, or a corrupt state, or poor people who receive benefits have caused, that narrative can fall on grateful ears (though it’s a great testament to folks when this is not the case).

These spin doctors will tell you, for example, that immigrants took your job. They’re often, but not always, rather oblique about this, as you have to be when you traffic in untruths, but it’s clear what they’re playing at. It’s just not true. Federal Reserve economist Giovaneri Peri writes that “immigrants expand the U.S. economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity,” and “there is no evidence that these effects take place at the expense of jobs for workers born in the United States,” (more great, carefully cited information is here).  The problem with the folks who (incorrectly) assign blame for economic issues to marginalized groups, though, is that truth matters little, since they are operating on a deeper, emotional realm, and interacting with the second- and third-order psychological ramifications of a population that has first blamed itself, and now looks to pass on that blame to others.  And the table is set for such psychological motivation by the dangerous underbelly of the American Dream.

Those who stand to gain from the marginalization of particular groups are tireless in their manipulation of people’s economic insecurity to achieve their gains.  We hear, on repeat: recipients of welfare cost you your job[iv]; workers who demand a living wage are to blame; regulations that keep our water clean and workplaces safe are to blame. It’s important that in each instance to speak with truth in clarity about how different programs affect the size and distribution of income (here, here).  But it’s also important to cut to the root of the problem.

So, let’s wake up from the American Dream. Let’s stop pretending that economic success comes solely from hard work, and that our economic hardship is a shortcoming of character, and realize that we have an economic system that privileges the already powerful and hurts those without power. Of course, many of us already don’t believe in the idea, but too many of us do. If we can wake up from the dream, then, when things go wrong, and they will – we’ll be able to cope better, we’ll be able assign blame properly, and we won’t let economic insecurity be manipulated into attacks on others.



[i] For example, unemployment and evictions caused by the Great Recession, which was not at all the fault of individuals, but of 30 years of squeezing working people via different forms of financial manipulation, culminating in borrowing against the supposed rising value of their homes.

[ii] The American Dream is a kind of nebulous thing to define (its main telling has even changed over time), and so people may respond across different polls differently.

[iii] An exception is this paper by CPE Staff Economist David Kotz – “The Financial and Economic Crisis of 2008: A Systemic Crisis of Neoliberal Capitalism”.

[iv] Often, complaints about the size of government (which don’t really ever focus on the military budget, or outlays for mass incarceration, or subsidies to big agriculture), will demonize a group and connect that to an economic outcome via the device of ‘big government’: group x receives funding from the government, and a big government kills jobs with taxes, including my job, and so group x is to blame.