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The term American Dream traditionally has meant the ability of all Americans to attain a better standard of living, including owning a home and an automobile, and having access to higher education. The term first appeared in 1932, coined by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America. In an indirect sense, it was a reaction to Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925), in which the protagonist is portrayed as bent on bettering his current status in life, regardless of the consequences.
Although the term had not yet been coined, the dream became part and parcel of the national psyche during the 1920s, when consumer goods such as radios, cars, and, most importantly, homes, became readily available. To achieve widespread consumerism, manufactured items came with consumer credit offered on a revolving basis, often by the manufacturers of the goods. During that decade, about two-thirds of the gross national product became attributable to consumer spending; this share has persisted ever since.
The idea was aided immeasurably by political events from the 1930s through the 1970s. The concept of home ownership and mortgage credit was the first part of the dream to be given government assistance, beginning in the 1930s. Using a model first developed during World War I to aid farmers by providing standard mortgages, the Hoover administration, followed by the Roosevelt administration, began extending government intervention to the banks making residential mortgages. During the Great Depression many banks failed, and in order to preserve their assets and stabilize the market for home mortgages, Congress created several agencies dedicated to preserving the market for mortgages, to benefit both homeowners and banks. The Federal Housing Administration and the Federal National Mortgage Administration were created to guarantee home loans to banks, and the result was that mortgages were easier to obtain.
After World War II subsidized mortgages were offered by the Veterans Administration to returning servicemen, extending the concept into the postwar period. In 1957 higher education also benefited from intervention by the government when the Department of Education began offering student loans. As a result of the two programs and the modifications they underwent in the 1970s, homeownership and higher education were within the reach of many people who otherwise might not have been able to access them.
The concept has been extended to other sections of the economy as well, but the presence of governmentsponsored enterprises dedicated to supporting residential mortgage loans and higher education loans attests to the enduring quality of the American Dream, both for politicians as well as social commentators. Its essential definition remains unchanged over the years.
- Caldor, Lendol. 1999. Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Geisst, Charles R. 1990. Visionary Capitalism: Financial Markets and the American Dream in the Twentieth Century. New York: Praeger Publishers.
- Rivlin, Alice M. 1992. Reviving the American Dream: The Economy, the States, and the Federal Government. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
- Wright, Esmond. 1996. The American Dream: From Reconstruction to Reagan. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
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