Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The American Dream today

In 2006, almost 69% of Americans owned their own homes. This percentage is the highest in American history and among the highest worldwide.
“To possess one’s own home, however small, is the hope of every family in our country. That is the American ideal, born of an exquisite sentiment, nurtured by a long national tradition, and proved right by its innumerable practical advantages.” – President Herbert Hoover, 1932

“My goal is homeownership for every American family that wants to own a home and is willing to work for and save for it.”President Gerald Ford, 1976

“Homeownership is not just a symbol, it represents the American way of life.”
President Ronald Reagan, 1982

…for what is the American dream if it isn't wanting to be part of something larger than ourselves? … For most people, these aspirations means enjoying the blessings of good health or having a home to call one's own…”
President George H.W. Bush, 1991

“Owning a home is central to the American dream.”
 President William J. Clinton, 1996

“I believe when somebody owns their own home, they’re realizing the American Dream. They can say it’s my home, it’s nobody else’s home.”
 President George W. Bush, 2002

“One in ten families who owns a home is now in some form of distress, the most ever recorded. This is deeply troubling. It not only shakes the foundation of our economy, but the foundation of the American Dream. There is nothing more fundamental than having a home to call your own.” President Barack Obama, 2009
Every president since Herbert Hoover has made home ownership a cornerstone of the ideal that is the American Dream. The American Dream has become inextricably linked to homeownership and that idea is driven the hardest by our government. In order to realize the American Dream, you must own a home. 

The question that most people curiously do not ask is: Why?
Why do we need to be homeowners? 
Why is our experience of the American Dream incomplete without a mortgage? 
Why do we accept this as our guiding principal without question? 

I don’t know. But I did. 

This is not an argument against homeownership. It’s more a referendum on an inherited ideal that doesn’t seem to hold the water it used to.
Our government has economic motivations to encourage homeownership. Now, I am not an economist. Not in the least. (Our debt and recent financial history should speak volumes to that.) I can’t speak with any authority on the far-reaching economical implications of homeownership. I can speak, however, to my changing feelings on the subject.
I agree with President George H. W. Bush in that the American Dream is the idea of “wanting to be part of something larger than ourselves.” And my whole life I accepted without much thought, that this would include owning my own home. 

I never considered that once I owned a home I would ever go back to renting. So, in that sense, in losing our house we did lose our foothold in the American Dream. This is true.  But this, we discovered, wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
President George W. Bush said that when you realize the American Dream you can say “it’s my home, it’s nobody else’s home.” That sentiment is a fallacy in actuality. What is clearer to me than anything is that the real owner of our home was Countrywide- our lender. The banks own the mortgages. You don’t own your home until you’ve paid off your mortgage. And how many Americans are actually able to do that? Not many. I think it’s around 1 in 10. 

What was once widely seen as a pathway to independence has become a form of imprisonment. We Americans don’t own our own homes; they own us. And yet, according to a recent Trulia survey, 70% of Americans still consider homeownership a part of the American Dream.
Again, I ask: Why? 

And is that true for me? 

I do still want to own a house again in the future. Once we’re back on our feet. But we’ll be smarter. We’ll have a lot more savings. We won’t invest so much in a remodel. We won’t bank on an upward trend.

It’s still in me- this inherent desire to own property. 
Why am I still attached to the idea? 
Why can’t I just let it go?

I do enjoy being a renter and the freedom that it gives us. I especially enjoy it when something goes wrong with the plumbing, for example, and I realize that I don’t have to foot the bill as the homeowner. But I notice that as much as I love our apartment, I haven’t truly made it our own. I fear putting too much into decorating because it’s not actually ours. We hung our art and planted tomatoes in the garden, but I still haven’t painted the bathroom or found a table and chairs for the kitchen.

Perhaps that’s just the result of new priorities, no budget for decorating and no time for it anyway. Or is it because deep down I’m waiting for a space that’s all my own again?

As President Obama said, “There is nothing more fundamental than having a home to call your own.” But perhaps “having a home” doesn’t have to mean, “owning a home.”

What is your idea of the American Dream? 
Does it include home ownership? 
If so, what sort of home is your dream? (Please share in the comments below)

On a related note, I really enjoyed this post from Apartment Therapy about the American Dream... especially the Frank Lloyd Wright house built in 1937 for only $5,000!  

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EM Lewis said...

I've been thinking a lot about what I want my life to look like this year, since it's been such a crazy year of transition for me.

Choosing to be a playwright pushes me toward certain environments (near or in cities with strong theater scenes). I know I want to live near water, I'd like to be able to walk to most things I need to get to, I like to feel safe when I go out my door, and I'm fond of college towns. But I don't feel like I need to own a house.

I think part of that is that my job requires flexibility, and I want to be able to follow where it leads me. Also, I have no family (as in spouse and children), so that allows me to be more flexible. But also, I think that part of the reason I can have wings (if you'll allow some poetic license), is that my parents have roots. They live on the family farm, which they inherited from my great grandparents, which will go to me and my brother. Hopefully not for a million years, but it will. And so I have the luxury of having a place without having it.

I do the same as you, though -- never completely making myself at home, because every dwelling is temporary.

There is something in me that is wistful for something more solid. But really... nothing is. We are not permanent. It's funny how we always know that, but don't KNOW it. Nothing gold can stay.

Good post, Stephanie! As always, you are thought-provoking and well-spoken. Thank you!

Love in the Time of Foreclosure said...

Hi Ellen,

Thanks so much for the wonderfully thoughtful response. Once you uproot and spread wings, it gets harder to figure out what you want, right? Because so much more is possible. My mind will spin and spin on all of the possibilities and make me crazy.

I completely agree with you about permanence or the idea of permanence.

I know you're in Paris right now cat sitting for three weeks and I imagine that you're thinking about this more and more. Perhaps even fantasizing about living in Paris for a spell?

Thanks again for responding. And I hope you are thoroughly enjoying your time in Paris!

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