How the American dream is becoming an American illusion

Inequality has been growing in the US and the Trump administration is making it much worse.

US poverty op-ed photo Reuters
On a cold winter's day, a homeless person tries to stay warm at the entrance of a subway station near the White House in Washington, DC, US [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

On June 1, Phillip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, released a report on the United States. It outlined his searing critique of the Trump administration’s policies, arguing that they are deepening entrenched inequality and increasing misery.

Alston painted a grim picture of the country’s current circumstances and its likely trajectory, not only for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder but for American society itself.

The report presents a withering appraisal of American exceptionalism. As Alston observes, “the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that, while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to healthcare or growing up in a context of total deprivation.”

The high rates of child and youth poverty are particularly alarming, since they “perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty very effectively, and ensure that the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion”.  

While people outside the US might be shocked by the conclusions of the report, for many Americans they are painfully clear. Aspects of the US political system and long-term socioeconomic policies have kept the poverty rate high and hampered social mobility. This reality predates the Trump administration, but its policies will just make it worse.

Poverty and corporate control over lawmaking

Inequality and extreme poverty are not new, nor is the persistent social exclusion that accompanies them.  Decades of neoliberal policies have valorised and promoted private enterprise and flouted state responsibility for the well-being of its citizens.  

Economic and political power are mutually reinforcing. The corrosive influence of money in politics has consolidated corporate capacity to advance its own interests. The majority of lawmakers are beholden to their big donors instead of the interests of their constituents. Too few care to ensure that their poor voters too can live the “American dream”.

Many of them – like President Donald Trump – also embrace the view that poverty is essentially a function of personal failings rather than structural disadvantage.


It is hardly surprising, therefore, that instead of working to level the playing field or widen the social safety net for those at the economy’s margins, Trump has supported efforts to improve profitability for corporate companies.

His administration has rolled back protections for workers, eased restrictions on banks, and gutted safety and environmental regulations. 

The regressive $1.5tn tax cut package passed last December inured to the benefit of the wealthy and exacerbated inequality. Republican groups, led by the Koch brothers, invested millions to market the tax cuts as helpful to middle class and to promote the law.

The trumpeted trickle-down benefit to workers has largely failed to materialise, as many corporations have pocketed their tax breaks instead of passing them along. The tax cuts were historically unpopular, and have grown increasingly so. 

No wonder there is widespread pessimism: a Pew Study found that 62 percent of people believe the country’s economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests,” while just over a third believe it is “generally fair to most Americans.”

Eroding political rights

Political marginalisation foments economic misery. Yet impediments to political participation, including felon disenfranchisement and voter suppression, are undermining the ability of Americans to shape a more just system. Most of these predate Trump.

These obstacles are designed to keep poor and minority voters from registration rolls, in part because the projected mid-century shift to a majority non-white nation bodes ill for Republicans.


Efforts to forestall the impending demographic shifts and a corresponding realignment of political power are also evident though increasingly hardline immigration policies aimed at keeping non-white migrants out of the country, propelled by fear-mongering that intensifies existing tensions.

In his report, Alston invokes the example of Puerto Rico to highlight the nexus between poverty and political rights. The impoverished territory lacks meaningful political representation yet is precluded from real self-governance – all part of the legacy of ongoing colonisation.

After touting the federal government’s efficient disaster response to last September’s devastating hurricane and the storm’s low death toll, Trump lashed out at local leaders pleading for more assistance, calling them “politically motivated ingrates”.

Amid recent confirmation that the initial death toll was woefully undercounted, it’s sadly unsurprising that a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the island’s federally imposed oversight board is prioritising debt repayment over the needs of a population ravaged by a humanitarian crisis.

A moment of opportunity

It is a bleak time for the US and the global community, with the resurgence of populist authoritarianism raising vexing questions about the ultimate compatibility of democracy and unbridled global capitalism.

These queries are made more urgent by worries about the sustainability of the current system and its ability to adapt to the existential threat of climate change.

As people’s struggles mount, their social support narrows, and their prospects dim, there is a real risk of escalating social conflict and instability, fuelled by Trump’s divisive and inflammatory rhetoric.  

But it is also a moment of opportunity for a unifying grassroots mobilisation around demands for a more socially and economically egalitarian society.

Those efforts are already well under way, with emerging strategies to push back against the ravages of market fundamentalism and advance a truly transformative agenda, including a revived Poor People’s Campaign and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative for a new Social Contract, constructed and driven by communities rather than imposed from above. 

As presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ popular success showed, calls for distributive justice are no longer a fringe concept. In these moments of despair, a clear-eyed vision about the structures that undergird and perpetuate social and economic inequality will inform the best strategy to transcend them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.