The American Dream, Education, and Poverty

The ideology of meritocracy is key to the American Dream. The word “America” immediately conjures up thoughts of equal opportunity for all. According to Johnson, “the American Dream promises that our system functions as a meritocracy…[where] people get ahead or behind based on what they earn and deserve rather than what circumstances they were born into” (20). This idea permeates everything from the government, to schools, to family homes, to conversations, to core beliefs. Though we may not realize it, we accept this idea of the American Dream functioning as a meritocracy without question.

Though the American Dream would like to pretend that it perpetuates a system of meritocracy, in reality, self-serving desires—while not necessarily wrong or bad—keep the dream of a meritocratic society from being realized. Because an upper-class existed prior to the implementation of a meritocratic/democratic system in America, there are those who entered the so called “meritocratic” system at an extreme advantage as well as those an extreme disadvantage. In the face of the rising value and standards of merit in America, those who had access to the power of wealth used it, and are still using it, to put themselves and their children ahead. This is seen in the interviews discussed in “The American Dream and the Power of Wealth.” These interviews provide two points that directly oppose the idea of America as a meritocracy: parents want the best education for their children in order to give them the best opportunities to succeed, and, the higher a family is on the economic ladder, the more power they wield in order to secure the best education for their children. Though parents often admitted to the inequality inherent in the education system, that did not stop them from doing everything they could, using every resource—from their own income to the acquired wealth of those in their families—available to them to put their children ahead. Through a race, a competition of “meritocracy’s” own making, America has become a system of stratification.

In a “land of opportunity,” the very real variations in school quality creates a paradox that forces us to ask a very important question: if American is the land of opportunity, a meritocracy where one advances or falls on their merit alone, and education is the “great equalizer” that levels the playing field, giving all students the same tools, how can we justify the fact that overwhelmingly schools in poor neighborhoods and areas do not have the same funds, resources, quality teachers, etc. that more affluent neighborhoods do? How can we say that children in poverty have the same, equal opportunities to succeed as children from wealthy families when their access to quality education is not equal?


Johnson, HB. 2006. Chapters 2 and 3 in The American Dream and the Power of Wealth: Choosing Schools and Inheriting Inequality in the Land of Opportunity. New York: Routledge. Pp. 19-78.

More Than 40% of Low-Income Schools Don’t Get a Fair Share of State and Local Funds, Department of Education Research Finds–US Department of Education

More articles:

Very Rich Get Very Richer: Wealthiest 20% Holds 94.5% of World’s Money–Wall Street Journal

Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools: “Mississippi led the nation with the highest rate: ­71 percent, almost three out of every four public school children in Mississippi, were low-income [in 2013].” –Southern Education Foundation


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