SEATTLE July 2005
As millions queue up to get rights to live in the United States, a new economic survey has found that you have less chance of getting rich in America than in much of Europe and developing world. The Centre for Economic Performance in London found that in Europe you have almost twice as much chance of breaking out, raising the question about how much of a myth is the American Dream.
It was a brilliant, hot day on the Seattle waterfront, with unspoilt views across the sound to outlying islands. Just beyond a stretch of grass where people lay with books and lovers, came the melody of live unaccompanied singing from deep within the bustle of the near-by Pike Market.
It turned out to be four men outside a café singing a love song about Cupid, each with different voice ranges, and a deep, swaying crowd, clapping along.
The Starbucks logo of the café struck me as a little old fashioned until someone mentioned that this was the first Starbucks ever opened anywhere in the world.
I had come to Seattle because of a recent survey by the Centre for Economic Performance in London, on how easy or difficult it was to get rich in different parts of the world – or if not rich, at least move out of poverty.
‘If you’re born into poverty in the US,’ said one of its authors, ‘you’re actually more likely to remain in poverty than in other countries in Europe, the Nordic countries, even Canada, which you’d think wouldn’t be that different.’
The study, together with anti-American sentiment which has become more prevalent since the Iraq war, raised for me a question about the American Dream – the idea that the United States is a place where anything is possible.
I’d chosen Seattle not only because Starbucks was created there, but also because Microsoft and Amazon Books and Boeing airliners all come from this small city – dreams, if you want, which began small but are now global brands.
‘Great day, isn’t it,’ I turned to see the lined, and drawn face of a man. I’ll call Dave.’ Are you getting what you want?’
We’d met a couple of days earlier when he was having breakfast at a charity for the broke and homeless, and I’d asked him if he believed in the American dream.
‘The American Dream,’ he said, eating a muffin and wiping his lips with a paper napkin. ‘Well it comes and goes. It’ll come again.’
In a low-ceilinged eating hall, maybe a hundred men sat side by side along trestle tables. They’d queued up since five, registered to find a day’s work, then ate while security guards watched over them in case there was trouble.
In Europe or just across the border in Canada, they’d get social security, but this was America, where society is starkly divided into winners and losers.
Strangely, though, there seemed to be little resentment or blame of government. American culture is about self-reliance and the individual fighting a way through.
‘The American Dream,’ said one of the men, his eyes dartingly alive, his nose so skewed it must have been broken many times in different fights.
‘I guess you’re taking about a home, wife, children and all that.’
‘Do you have it?’ I said.
‘No. No. I don’t. I had my opportunities, but I lost.’
Just up the road in a small print shop, a fit, thoughtful former air force officer, Bobby Ray Forbes, was slotting calendars into envelopes. His life collapsed when his marriage went wrong. He’d ended up on the street, but recently had managed to get a job and keep it.
‘Oh sure, I’ve had the house, picket fence, two cars,’ he said. ‘But I put myself in a position where the government could take control. Right now I’m happy just being back in control. You see, what a lot of people don’t know is that the key is not getting the American Dream. It’s holding onto it.’
In Europe, the government is entwined with a lot of what we do, yet in America, there seems to be a strong sense that the more say the government has over you, the more you carry a sense of failure.
Yet millions still yearn to come and take up the challenge. A million a year settle to start the process of becoming American citizens. Half a million actually take the oath.
At the landscaped Seattle centre, using cards and newspapers to shield themselves from the sun, rows and rows of immigrants at a naturalisation ceremony listened to local officials speak about various aspects of the American Dream.
They came from everywhere, Britain, France, Iran, Iraq – the name of every country read out, to cheers, as if we were the Oscars – and, of course, the waving of American flags.
‘Why do you want to live here and not in Europe,’ I asked a young woman from Ethiopia, who tipped back her Seattle Mariners baseball cap and looked at me as if I were completely mad.
‘Europe,’ she said disdainfully. ‘What do they ever hope for in Europe? Here they have a law that you can dream to be happy.’