A new online quiz is hoping to challenge the classic American Dream narrative by showing people just how much support they had to get to where they are.
The “Your American Dream Score” quiz asks people a series of questions about who they are and what factors, such as health, education, race or gender, may have contributed to their success ― or created barriers to it. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the quiz was launched last month by communications company Galewill as part of an initiative to inform people around inequality in America.
“On the one hand, the narrative around the American Dream is essential ― it gives people hope if you come from a poor background,” Galewill founder Bob McKinnon told HuffPost. “But at the same time it’s a limiting belief. The idea that if you work as hard as you can, you can overcome anything ― it’s not a complete story.”
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have used the narrative ― to speak of the opportunities that exist in America for people in poverty or immigrants to make it against the odds, but also to justify not providing government support to low-income people, who are expected to simply work hard and make it on their own.
This quiz aims to push back on the American narrative of individual success by getting people to take an honest look at how they ended up where they are, and recognize the barriers they faced, as well as the help they got along the way ― including from the government.
“I grew up in a poor neighborhood outside Boston, then a trailer park in Pennsylvania,” McKinnon said. “At certain points I benefited from food stamps ― but there are people who don’t publicly admit that.”
Galewill worked with social scientists and other experts to craft the questions in the quiz and to paint an accurate picture of the factors that contribute to social mobility.
When I took the quiz, for instance, I started by inputting my gender, race and approximate age. Then I was prompted with a series of multiple-choice questions, asking whether I came from a two-parent household, or thought my neighborhood was safe, or had faced a health setback, among others.
When I got my score (60/100), I also got a drop-down explanation of how the score compared to others’. It told me I’ve had more factors working in my favor than against me, listing out some of the specific factors that helped me ― for instance, that I had a good education ― and that hindered ― that the economy wasn’t very strong when I graduated.
The score page also tells you some ways to take action, such as thanking people who have helped you along the way, like mentors and teachers, or volunteering with groups that are helping others facing similar barriers. For those who still face roadblocks today, it also points to groups that support low-income Americans, such as LIFT or Boys and Girls Club of America.
Though the tool is expressly non-partisan, McKinnon said, its goal of changing the narrative around American success has clear implications for public policy.
“I believe the reasons why there are cuts to certain things is predicated on an incomplete picture of what it takes to get ahead in this country, especially if you’re disadvantaged,” McKinnon said.
Last week, for instance, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson was called out on Twitter for saying poverty is just a “state of mind.” Carson, who was raised in low-income housing, has criticized government assistance for making people too “comfortable.”
“If we want to make sure every child has an opportunity to get ahead, we have to have a more honest conversation on what it takes to get ahead,” McKinnon said. “The hope is we start telling better stories of how we end up where we do, that it shifts thinking to remember those people ― and programs ― that helped us and that they get their proper due.”
President Donald Trump’s recently proposed budget would make significant cuts to social programs that support low-income Americans, such as Medicaid, food stamps and disability insurance. Congress is working on its own budget.
“Wouldn’t it just be great to know what the aggregate [American Dream] score of Congress was?” McKinnon said. “Or to have them hold up their score before they vote on something?”
“I would love to see Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan both find their score and have a conversation about it,” he added. “That’s an honest conversation: You look at the research behind what helped you or me, and you design policy around it.”
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