THE AMERICAN DREAM"
SHEILA KATZ, PH.D. !
CAL MARITIME SUMMER READING PROGRAM
AUGUST 26, 2013"
ISSUES TO CONSIDER TODAY"
Ø Lessons from Outliers!
Ø Social Science Research on “Outliers” !
Ø Pursuit of the American Dream!
Ø Wealth Inequality in the United States!
Ø The Great Recession!
Ø Student Welfare Mothers as Outliers!
Ø Increasing Access to American Dream !
Ø Other Lessons from Outliers…!
LESSONS FROM OUTLIERS:
WHAT IS AN OUTLIER? !
Gladwell deﬁnes “Outlier” as a scientiﬁc term to
describe things or phenomena that lie outside
normal experience. !
The term is commonly used in statistics, this is
an outlier: !
LESSONS FROM OUTLIERS: SUCCESS!
Successful people as “outliers” but in his book, Gladwell
explores the underlying external factors:!
Chapter 2: how an arbitrary decision in the beginning (such
as cut-off birthdate for youth hockey) invokes a new
behavior, who becomes successful, which makes the
original false conception come true.!
Chapter 3: 10,000 hour rule: genius is a function of time
not of innate talent. Bill Gates, Beatles, Mozart!
Chapter 4: Success is not only a function of hard work, but
of also likability and the ability to empathize.!
Chapter 5: The role culture in success, with the example
from Jewish lawyers in NYC came from a culture that hard
work and ingenuity were encouraged. !
LESSONS FROM OUTLIERS: SUCCESS!
Chapter 6: Explores the role of culture of origin affects behavior
in the present more than is usually appreciated. Example of the
culture of honor in the US south. !
Chapter 7: How cultures which value deference corresponded to
air crashes, and how they changed the trend.!
Chapter 8: Gladwell examines how hard work but also culture
inﬂuences can create success.!
Final chapters: Success, giftedness, and IQ are not inherent,
but can be conferred through beneﬁts of culture and society—
and we need to examine the mechanisms that are underlying
SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH!
Throughout Gladwellʼs book he cites several prominent
sociologists in his explanation of outliers, so letʼs explore this
a little more.!
Our society and culture often uses individualistic
explanations to explain experiences such as success,
however, sociology does not. !
◦ We try to look at external factors that shape individual
choices and opportunities.!
◦ We often refer to individual choices and opportunities as
◦ And the external factors as the social structure. !
Sociologists look to the character and structure of social
groups to which people belong in seeking possible
explanations for their behavior.!
The Sociological Imagination "
What is the sociological imagination? Term coined by sociologist
C. Wright Mills (1916–1962): the ability to see the impact of
massive cultural and historical processes on our private lives.!
The ability to recognize that the solutions to many of our most
serious social problems lie not in changing the personal situations
and characteristics of individual people but in changing the social
institutions and roles available to them.!
Everyday social life is the product of a complex interplay between
societal forces and personal characteristics. !
To explain why people are the way they are (or do the things they
do), we must understand the interpersonal, historical, cultural,
organizational, and global environments they inhabit. !
To understand either individuals or society, we must understand
The Sociological Imagination "
The Sociological Imagination allows us to understand the
larger historical picture and its meaning in our own lives. !
Mills argued that no matter how personal we think our
experiences are, many of them can be seen as products of
society-wide forces. !
The task of sociology is to help us view our lives as the
intersection between personal biography and societal history—
and thereby to provide a means for us to interpret our lives and
social circumstances. !
This is similar to what Gladwell did in Outliers with the concept
of success or opportunity for success; however, sociologists
tend to tackle one issue or circumstance at a time—and then
explore, examine, scrutinize, observe, and study it thoroughly
to create a theory that explains the phenomenon.!
PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM"
• What is the American Dream? !
• Aspects of the American Dream include:!
• Opportunity to pursue success.!
• Personal freedom, hope, and control over
• Fulﬁlling employment at a livable wage.!
• Access to higher education.!
• Material dimensions such as owning a home.!
• Could also include: protection from deep
poverty (or access to a social safety net),
access to health care, rewarding retirement.
TENETS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
(FROM HOCHSCHILD 1996)!
Ø The American Dream consists of tenets about
achieving success. Success can be relative,
absolute, or competitive.!
Ø Everyone may achieve their American dream.!
Ø One may reasonably anticipate success.!
Ø The reason for success (or failure) is personal, good
Ø The pursuit of success warrants so much fervor
because it is associated with virtue.!
SOCIOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF
OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUCCESS!
Ø Sociologists, like Hochschild did with the American
Dream, research opportunities for success…or how
access to opportunities for success vary in our social
Ø Opportunities vary in our society based on positions
in the social structure. These position vary by social
characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, social
class, sexual orientation, age, religion, nation of
origin, veteranʼs status, etc. !
EQUALITY AND PERCEPTIONS!
One of the great misconceptions in American society is
the perception of equality of opportunities. !
Sociological research ﬁnds that opportunities are not
equal for those in different positions in our social
Some may point out that people from different positions
are achieving more than ever: such as the election of an
African American President, womenʼs growing equality
in the workforce, or recent changes in marriage equality. !
Yet, these changes donʼt uncover the whole picture…!
EQUALITY AND PERCEPTIONS
• Many gaps in equality still exist in our society. !
• One example is the gendered wage gap—women make only 70
cents for every dollar men earn. !
• The 113th Congress, sworn in January 2013, made a historic
milestone. The new Congress is the “most diverse congress ever
sworn in,” yet, women and minorities still make up only a minor
percentage of the U.S. Congress. !
EQUALITY AND PERCEPTIONS
And, some inequalities, particularly socio-economic
inequalities, are getting worse. !
Over the last 30 years, U.S. wealth and income
inequality has increased rather signiﬁcantly. !
EXAMPLE: WEALTH AND INCOME
INEQUALITY IN THE U.S.!
One of the aspects of the American Dream is that we have
equality of opportunity to achieve success. !
If we examine economic success, even if we modestly
deﬁne it, that success is becoming more of an “outlier” for
most Americans. !
We also know that a familyʼs socio-economic status affects
their childrenʼs ability to achieve “success.” !
We need to examine how our society perceives wealth
inequality in the U.S. versus the actual distribution of
QUESTIONS SOCIOLOGISTS NEED TO ASK
ABOUT WEALTH AND INCOME INEQUALITY!
Why is the perception of wealth equality so far removed
from the actual distribution of wealth in the US?!
How has opportunities to pursue economic success
changed in the last 40 years? !
How are those changes caused by changes in laws and
social policies? What other structural factors contributed to
those changes? !
How are opportunities for low and middle income people
affected by these inequalities? !
What can we do to better create opportunities for success
(or at least ensure that people can reasonably pursue the
American Dream)? !
INEQUALITY AND THE GREAT RECESSION"
Ø Longest post-war recession, with “its origins in a unusually
dramatic ﬁnancial crisis.” (Grusky, Western, & Widmer 2010: 4)!
Ø Included an “increase in joblessness has been greater, the long-
term unemployed are a larger fraction of total employment, and
the recovery of the labor market, in terms of job growth and
falling unemployment, has been very slow” (2010: 4). !
Ø Predominately male-dominated industries and occupations were
harder hit by the recessionʼs onset (such as construction and
manufacturing), leading some to dub it a “mancession.” !
Ø Menʼs job losses began earlier than womenʼs losses and lasted
longer, and menʼs job losses were also more than twice than
womenʼs losses (Hout, Levanon & Cumberworth 2010 and
IWPR 2011). !
GREAT RECESSION, EDUCATIONAL
LEVEL, AND WAGES
Ø Workers fared differently in the recession according
to educational level and race/ethnicity. But, higher
education may have greatest impact for those from
the least advantaged backgrounds. !
Ø According to Hout, Levanon and Cumberworth
(2010:73), “the risk of being unemployed declines
sharply as education rises” and they found that
although unemployment rate rose more or less
proportionately for each educational category, that
the “proportional increases raised unemployment
most for the least-educated and least for the most-
EDUCATION AND WAGES"
Ø During Great Recession, workers with a Bachelorʼs degree had
lower unemployment rates and higher income during the
recession than those without a college degree (US Census
!High School ! !College Graduates!
LOW-INCOME FAMILIES DURING GR"
• The Great Recession had a deep impact on American families,
especially those who were low-income. !
• Since the start of the Great Recession, the U.S. poverty rate
increased each year, and was at 15.3% in 2011 (Census 2012).!
• Research shows that low-income families are usually the ﬁrst to feel
the effects of the recession or an economic downturn, and as a
group they are some of the last to recover from a recession.!
• This trend increased since the 1996 welfare reforms. Those reforms
severely limited access to higher education for low-income mothers,
and instead emphasized a ʻwork ﬁrstʼ approach. This approach was
aimed to reduce caseloads and move families quickly into work,
without addressing the condition of low-wage workers in America. !
• As a result, the welfare caseloads dropped dramatically, by more
than half. But the poverty rate did not fall. !
INCREASES IN THE WORKING POOR "
Ø Now, approximately 10.5 million adults are among
the “working poor.” !
Ø “Working Poor” is deﬁned by the U.S. Department of
Labor as “individuals who spent at least 27 weeks in
the labor force, but whose incomes fall below the
ofﬁcial poverty level” (2011). !
Ø Ofﬁcial poverty level is $15,510 for an adult with one
Ø The number of adults in the U.S. who are working
but still poor has increased by almost double since
2000 (US Dept. Labor 2002/2011).!
Increases in Deep Poverty"
From 2007 to 2010, employment rates for single mothers in California
dropped by 10.4% and completely erased all the employment gains
made by them since welfare reform was implemented, but now without
a safety net to fall back on.!
Levels of deep poverty rose dramatically during the Great
Research on former welfare parents using national data (SIPP and
CPS) ﬁnds that the percent of families in extreme poverty (earnings
under one half of the national poverty threshold) has signiﬁcantly
increased, from under 1/4 of families formerly on welfare to more than
1/3 of families who formerly received assistance (Urban Institute 2007). !
Therefore, the modest economic gains that low-income families made
in the early years after welfare reform and during the booming
economy of the late 1990s, eroded completely when families started
reaching their lifetime limits on assistance amidst a stalling economy,
and then further deteriorated during the Great Recession (California
Budget Project 2012).!
SOCIAL SAFETY NET DURING GR"
Ø By the time the Great Recession hit, many families had
reached their lifetime limits on welfare and were not eligible
for any safety net services.!
Ø For the ﬁrst time since welfare reform was implemented, the
numbers of families on welfare is increasing.!
Ø Only 30% of poor families who would be otherwise eligible for
TANF actually receive it. !
Ø However, research shows that while food stamp use has
increased by increase from 28.2 million recipients in 2008 to
the present, 46.2 million recipients in 2011, an increase of
roughly 64%. !
Ø TANF has been called the “least responsive” social program
during the Great Recession (MDRC 2010 and California
Budget Project 2011). !
• My research interests are at the intersection of pursuing the American
Dream, womenʼs status in society, access to higher education, and
economic mobility for low-income families.!
• American culture values higher education, recognizes the necessity of
higher education for upward economic mobility, and views it as a
pathway to the American Dream.!
• Despite the ʻwork ﬁrstʼ approach, some mothers chose to pursue
higher education while on welfare in hopes of permanently escaping
poverty. The mothers in my research were named the “outliers” of
the welfare population."
• The existing statistical research ﬁnds that higher education for women on
welfare leads to increased wages and employment opportunities, usually
leading to economic self-sufﬁciency and upward mobility.!
• I asked: how do low-income single mothers access higher education after
welfare reform? Does higher education help low-income single mothers
get out of poverty? How do low-income women conceptualize and pursue
the American Dream?!
WELFARE REFORM AND HIGHER EDUCATION"
• In 2006, I conducted qualitative in-depth interviews with 45 mothers on
CalWORKs (Californiaʼs welfare program) pursuing higher education in
San Francisco and Alameda Counties (Oakland).!
• Upon reaching a crossroads from experiencing multiple ʻbarriersʼ to self-
sufﬁciency (such as domestic violence, prolonged unemployment,
substance abuse, or an unexpected pregnancy) the mothers wanted to
change course, so they enrolled in higher education.!
• The signiﬁcance mothers give to their education is similar to why other
Americans pursue higher education: labor market advancement, as
role models for their children, for self empowerment, and for
meaning in their lives. !
• Follow-up interviews conducted in fall 2008 with 25 participants. Third
interviews conducted in spring 2011 with 35 of original 45 participants
(78% retention rate).!
PURSUING A REFORMED DREAM"
• They struggle through reform regulations and time limits, while also
struggling to raise families, attend school, and escape poverty.!
• This is a daunting but empowering experience (Katz 2013).!
• They cite higher education as the most effective use of the 60 months
time-limited aid and believe it will enable them to escape poverty. !
• This research ﬁnds that higher education does increase CalWORKs
mothersʼ chances of economic stability, especially for those who
graduated with Bachelorʼs degree.!
• However, what happens when low-income women graduate amidst the
biggest recession the nation has experienced since the Great
2011 EDUCATION ACHIEVED AND
CURRENT EMPLOYMENT STATUS
EFFECTS OF THE ʻGREAT RECESSIONʼ
ʻGreat Recessionʼ hit hardest for those without Bachelorʼs
degrees. A few lost jobs or were unable to ﬁnd jobs after
graduating. Even though participants might income-qualify for
CalWORKs, they already exhausted their 60-month limit and
were left with no support. !
The Great Recession exposed that the American safety net
for low-income families was shredded in the last 15 years,
and that mothers who are able to climb out of poverty, can still
suffer greatly during economic downturns.!
Their experiences illustrate that we need to rebuild the
safety net, so that it is available to everyone during
We need to expand access to higher education for all, so
that more people have access to the American Dream. !
ACCESS TO THE AMER. DREAM
• How our society can create equality of opportunity for people? !
• This research contributes to this national conversation by suggesting that
increasing access to higher education for all, especially welfare mothers,
helps families become economically self-sufﬁcient when time-limited aid
ends. Thereby decreasing the poverty rate and the welfare rolls. !
• Higher education contributes to upward economic mobility for low-income
• Supportive services for working families, especially child care, medical
care, food stamps, and mental health assistance, increases chances of
economic self-sufﬁciency. "
• Also, this research ﬁnds that major social policies like universal health care,
affordable housing, expanded public transportation networks, and
implementing a living wage would further support low-income familiesʼ
chances of economic self-sufﬁciency. !
Other Outlier Lessons! "
Alongside understanding more about the structure of opportunity
and success through reading Gladwellʼs book, I believe we can
gain additional insights into how we can create success in our own
lives—and become “outliers.”!
Ø Take personal initiative.!
Ø Look for and be ready for new opportunities.!
Ø Figure out what you are passionate about. !
Ø Put in the work (without complaining about it)!!
Ø Ponder. Seek out “light bulb” moments.!
Ø Then, take action!!
Ø Get involved, be connected to your community, work to make
the changes you want to see in society, and contribute to
Ø Then, donʼt overthink it. Be happy.!
Donʼt believe me, read more for yourself!
CNN recently published (8/22/2013) a list of 99
“must reads” on Income Inequality:
Might I also recommend:
One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American
Poverty Affects Us All
by Mark Rank
For more information, please contact:
Sheila M. Katz, Ph.D.