Yvonne Abraham

What’s your American Dream Score?

An American flag flies over PNC Park during a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, May 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/AP

It’s an article of faith in this country — stronger in some places than others — that if only you work hard and play by the rules, you can achieve the American Dream.

Try hard enough, the fable goes, and financial stability and something approximating the nice house with the picket fence will be yours.

It’s a lovely notion. But it doesn’t take account of the fact that we all start from different places, each of us given advantages — or stuck with penalties — beyond our control.


A bunch of research has shown that the families and neighborhoods we’re born into, our access to health care, education, and housing, and the color of our skin, among other factors, make a huge difference to our fortunes, no matter how hard we work.

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A cool new tool can show each of us how many advantages we enjoy, or how high the deck is stacked against us. The result of a partnership between author and social entrepreneur Bob McKinnon, The Ford Foundation, and PBS, the five-minute quiz can give you your own American Dream Score — a summary of the factors that contribute to your success, and those that hold you back.

“It’s fully baked-in to think we are drivers of our own lives,” said McKinnon, who spent his first 12 years in Chelsea, birthplace of Horatio Alger. McKinnon’s mother, a bartender, was raising three kids alone. His family got by with help from food stamps and Medicaid.

The notion that hard work alone can free us from challenging circumstances is a stubborn one, he said, even among those, like him, who escape them.

My dream score was 67, which means I have had just about as many factors working against me as for me. I’ve benefited from a strong social network, I grew up in a safe neighborhood, and I’m healthy. I had access to a good public college and to great mentors. I’ve also benefited from public services, including a mortgage interest tax deduction.


On the minus side, my single mother struggled to give us all we needed, and I entered the job market in an iffy economy.

Not bad. I haven’t been as lucky as those who scored 66 or lower, who had most factors working in their favor. But I’ve had more advantages than many others.

I invite you to take the quiz yourself to get a snapshot of how you got to where you are. My score made me grateful, reminding me of my lucky breaks. McKinnon hopes pondering our paths will also make us less inclined to look down on those for whom success is elusive.

“The American Dream has some positive aspects,” he said. “It can inspire hope, but it’s also a limiting belief.”

To see the dire consequences of the hard-work-is-all-it-takes philosophy, look no further than the White House budget released this week. It guts programs for the poor and disadvantaged, slashing health care, student loans, food stamps, and disability payments, and it gives massive tax cuts to the wealthy.


“This is, I think, the first time in a long time that an administration has written a budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the taxes,” budget chief Mick Mulvaney said. “Too often in Washington I think we often think only on the recipient side.”

The proposal, breathtaking in its cruelty, makes sense only if you believe disadvantaged people are entirely to blame for their situations and just need a firm push to get it together. Also, if you believe rich people got where they are solely by dint of willpower, talent and effort (and entirely without help from the rest of us).

Mulvaney should take the quiz. He might learn something.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.