A Debate: Is America Still The Land of Opportunity?


Picture of a man looking at many doors main

The American Dream speaks of a “land of opportunity” where everyone has an equal chance for happiness based on their ability and effort. This principle inspired people from the days of the settlement of Jamestown and continues to do so today. We are a leader of the world in immigration. Our nation provides many opportunities for success while protecting fundamental rights for all. Nonetheless, there is much income inequality, racism, and other problems. Other nations challenge us as “the” land of opportunity.

The American Dream 

The United States, from its beginning, was a land of opportunity. People came to our shores for a variety of reasons. They migrated here to improve their economic well-being. They came for political and religious freedom. We can consider these the “pull factors” of immigration. 

The possibility of a better life, including for one’s children, is the basis of the American Dream. The dream does not promise results. It does promise an equal and realistic chance for each person. The Declaration of Independence promises an equal opportunity to pursue happiness. 

James Truslow Adams (a writer and historian) spoke of “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.” Adams argued this dream was especially true in the United States. 

A land of opportunity did not promise perfect equality. It does not require socialism or communism. Nonetheless, the American Dream promised that the United States stood out among nations because it allows each person to succeed “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” 

Mr. Adams wrote this in 1931. How true is it today? 

The U.S. Is Still The Land Of Opportunity  

The continual desire of people to come to the United States to build a better life provides clear evidence that the U.S. still is the land of opportunity. Equality remains our watchword. 

We remain the world leader in immigration. Fifteen percent of the people here are foreign-born. If they have children here, they are American citizens at birth with equal rights to all other citizens. Non-citizens have fundamental rights. They might not be able to vote. They do have religious liberty, freedom of speech, and so on. Citizenship is also open to them. 

Immigrants come here because economic opportunity is both possible and actual. Economic opportunity comes in many shapes and forms. Immigrants also come here because of the freedoms, cultural diversity, and opportunities our diverse nation promises for everybody. 

Some people pine for the days when you allegedly could be guaranteed a single job for all your professional lives. Nonetheless, there is nothing new about needing to move on to new jobs. People have had different jobs and moved around throughout the history of this country.

The United States has a capitalistic system with a safety net. The government guarantees fundamental needs such as primary and secondary education, health care, and environmental safeguards. We take these things for granted. Meanwhile, people all over the world only dream of such things. The country has problems and inequalities. No country is perfect.

The bottom line is we remain a land of opportunity. In many ways, we stand out among the rest. 

The U.S. Is Not A Land of Opportunity 

Since 1973, wage income rates have continuously fallen. The minimum wage has not kept in line with the cost of living. Higher education prices continue to rise while the needs of the 21st Century make it more and more essential to succeed. 

Income inequality has also risen. We are not a land of equal opportunity. One study found that the bottom fifth in wealth only had a 17% chance of making it into the top two-fifths as an adult. Any possibility of reforms in our tax system to fix this is repeatedly blocked.   

A person’s chance to succeed is not merely a matter of effort and ability. Economic and racial inequality are core problems in this country. Also, there are many roadblocks to immigration and citizenship. The United States is only a land of opportunity for some.   

Our capitalist system leads to a lot of stress. The chance of economic success often means sacrificing other things, including time with family and leisure time. We are a divided society uncertain about the future. It often does not seem like a land of opportunity.  

Is America “The” Land Of Opportunity?   

The middle path is to say that the United States is not “the” land of opportunity. There are multiple countries where a person’s chances are as good or better than in this country.  

Some countries have a better safety net while balancing socialism and freedom. A child’s chances are less reliant on how much money their parents have in other industrial countries. 

Other nations also provide a challenge regarding other reasons why people believe the United States is a land of opportunity. One report colorfully noted that “Iceland is the best place to have a uterus.”  Scandivanians are among the happiest and healthiest on earth.

We have always felt a sense of American exceptionalism. If the United States is only among the pack, it will hurt our ego.  A bit of modesty might be appropriate.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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