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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 August 2005, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
Stark reality of the American dream
By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC News, United States

Humphrey Hawksley asks whether that once universal idea of the American dream still exists.

The Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty remains the symbol of America's hope
It was a brilliant, hot day on the Seattle waterfront, with unspoilt views across the sound to outlying islands.

Just beyond a stretch of grass where people lay with books and lovers, came the melody of live unaccompanied singing from deep within the bustle of the nearby Pike Market.

It turned out to be four men outside a cafe singing a love song about Cupid, each with different voice ranges, and a deep, swaying crowd, clapping along.

The Starbucks logo of the cafe struck me as a little old-fashioned until someone mentioned that this was the first Starbucks ever opened anywhere in the world.

I had come to Seattle because of a recent survey by the Centre for Economic Performance in London, on how easy or difficult it was to get rich in different parts of the world - or if not rich, at least move out of poverty.

"If you are born into poverty in the US," said one of its authors, "you are actually more likely to remain in poverty than in other countries in Europe, the Nordic countries, even Canada, which you would think would not be that different."


The study, together with general anti-American sentiment which has become more prevalent since the Iraq war, raised for me a question about the American dream - the idea that the United States is a place where anything is possible.

American culture is about self-reliance and the individual fighting a way through
I had chosen Seattle not only because Starbucks was created there, but also because Microsoft and Amazon Books and Boeing airliners all come from this small city. Dreams, if you want, which began small but are now global brands.

"Great day, isn't it?" I turned to see the lined, and drawn face of a man I will call Dave.

"Are you getting what you want?"

We had met a couple of days earlier when he was having breakfast at a charity for the broke and homeless, and I had asked him if he believed in the American dream.

"The American dream," Dave said, eating a muffin and wiping his lips with a paper napkin.

"Well, it comes and goes. It will come again."

Winners and losers

In a low-ceilinged eating hall, maybe 100 men sat side by side along trestle tables.

Seattle Skyline
Seattle - the home of American dreams and big brands
They had queued up since five, registered in case there was any work, then ate while security guards watched over them in case there was trouble.

In Europe or just across the border in Canada, they would be more likely to get social security, but this was America, where society is starkly divided into winners and losers.

Strangely, though, there seemed to be little resentment or blame of government. American culture is about self-reliance and the individual fighting a way through.

"The American dream," said one of the men, his eyes dartingly alive, his nose so skewed it must have been broken many times in different fights.

"I guess you are talking about a home, wife, children and all that."

"Do you have it?" I said.

"No. No. I don't. I had my opportunities, but I lost."


Just up the road in a small print shop, a fit, thoughtful former air force officer, Bobby Ray Forbes, was slotting calendars into envelopes.

In America, I felt a sentiment that the more say the government has over you, the more you carry a sense of failure
His life collapsed when his marriage went wrong. He had ended up on the street, but recently had managed to get a job and keep it.

"Oh sure, I have had the house, picket fence, two cars," he said.

"But I put myself in a position where the government could take control. Right now I am happy just being back in control. You see, what a lot of people do not know is that the key is not getting the American dream. It is holding onto it."

In Europe, the government is entwined with a lot of what we do, yet in America, I felt a sentiment that the more say the government has over you, the more you carry a sense of failure.

Yet millions still yearn to come and take up the challenge.

A million a year settle to start the process of becoming American citizens. Half a million actually take the oath.

Flag waving

At the landscaped Seattle centre, using cards and newspapers to shield themselves from the sun, rows and rows of immigrants at a naturalisation ceremony listened to local officials speak about various aspects of the American dream.

They came from everywhere: Britain, France, Iran, Iraq - the name of every country read out, to cheers, as if we were at the Oscars and, of course, the waving of American flags.

"Why do you want to live here and not in Europe?" I asked a young woman from Ethiopia, who tipped back her Seattle Mariners baseball cap and looked at me as if I were completely mad.

"Europe," she said disdainfully.

"What do they ever hope for in Europe? Here they have a law that you can dream to be happy."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 18 August, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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