How Extreme Inequality Makes the American Dream Inaccessible

Categories: American Dream

Since the creation of the American Dream in America’s early history, it has remained an abstract symbol of growth, wealth, and prosperity. However, in recent history, it can be seen that the American Dream is not necessarily attainable by all Americans. F. Scott Fitzgerald explores this notion in The Great Gatsby by contrasting the immense wealth of those living in East and West Egg with the poverty of those living in the Valley of Ashes. William Deresiewicz takes a more modern look at the same inequality in “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” by discussing how inequality in education inhibits some from achieving the American Dream by predetermining the class structure of future college graduates.

James Scurlock’s contention in “Maxed Out” regarding the targeting of specific groups of college students by credit companies further ties into the idea that extreme inequality can make the American Dream inaccessible.

Ultimately, all three works highlight the detrimental effects that unchecked and extreme inequality can have on the accessibility of the American Dream, which is such an integral part of the American identity.

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Through these three works, it can be seen that while the American Dream seems to be universal, severe economic and social inequality may make this dream extremely difficult to attain for some; therefore, it may be necessary to change society’s attitude towards the plight of the less fortunate by providing education to the rich, regulating the predatory business practices of credit companies, and educating college students of the danger of debt accumulation in order to ensure that everyone is able to pursue the American Dream.

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In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes a time of opulent wealth, demonstrated by Gatsby’s extravagant parties and Tom Buchanan’s enormous estate; however, Fitzgerald also reveals the immense poverty of the same time period that sharply contrasts with this wealth.

When Nick describes the Valley of Ashes, which acts as a symbol of the poverty of the 1920s, he describes it as “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (Fitzgerald 22). Here, Fitzgerald conveys the desolation and hopelessness of the Valley of Ashes and offers a contrast to the brightness and extravagance of the lives of the rich. The symbolic nature of the Valley of Ashes is central to the main point Fitzgerald tries to convey; it reflects the fact that while the 1920s seem like a time of great wealth for all, the decade was, in reality, a time of extremes. While some enjoyed extreme wealth, others floundered in poverty. Fitzgerald’s symbol acts as a critique of the American Dream; Gatsby and Buchanan are able to languish in wealth as a result of this Dream, but what about those in the desolation of the Valley who are not able to enjoy the spoils of the American Dream, regardless of how hard they try?

One solution to this problem is education of the wealthy, as oftentimes in The Great Gatsby, the rich seem oblivious to the plight of the poor. If the wealthy are notified of the dire conditions in which the less fortunate are forced to live, they may be more inclined to use their wealth in a positive and societally meaningful way. In “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”, William Deresiewicz also writes on the effect that extreme inequality can have on the accessibility of the American Dream; however, while The Great Gatsby focuses mostly on the effects of economic inequality, Deresiewicz’s essay also references the social inequality that is caused by an elite education. In the opener of his essay, Deresiewicz states that “the first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you” (Deresiewicz 428).

By saying this, Deresiewicz implies that an elite education causes one to become out of touch with those who have not received the same type of education. It is also interesting to note that the converse of Deresiewicz’s statement suggests that those who do not participate in an elite education may not be able to converse with people who are higher up in social class. This may inhibit one’s ability to ascend the ranks of the social ladder, and therefore, it may preclude a large group of people from being able to pursue the American Dream. This idea goes hand in hand with The Great Gatsby; in the novel, elite education plays an important, albeit subtle, role in the execution of Fitzgerald’s thematic idea. In Gatsby, Tom Buchanan’s elite education acts as a badge of honor that differentiates him from everyone else; this makes him out of touch with those who are less fortunate and it propagates a sense of elitism in Buchanan. The feeling of being better than others that comes as a result of an elite education causes him to feel as though others are inferior, which is evidenced by his attitude towards people of other races.

However, more meaningful is the fact that Gatsby lies about having an Oxford education in order to fit in with the upper class; the fact that he needs to pretend to have an elite education in order to achieve the American Dream is evidence of the fact that the elite education causes a kind of societal cleavage and that it precludes those without such an education from being able to pursue and achieve the American Dream. A possible solution to this problem is changing our education system such that an elite education is affordable to anyone who is intelligent enough or deemed intellectually worthy to attend such a school, regardless of socioeconomic background; this could be done by subsidizing college education. By doing this, anyone would be able to achieve an elite education, and as a result, this type of college education would no longer be a propagator of socioeconomic cleavage, but rather an opportunity for one to achieve his/her dream.

Along with the description of the Valley of Ashes, in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald conveys his thematic idea about the extreme inequality of the time period in which the story takes place in other ways. Towards the beginning of the novel, Nick Carraway talks about the advice his father gave him about criticizing others; he says that “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had”” (Fitzgerald 6). By saying this, Carraway suggests that there are many people in the world who are significantly less fortunate than he is. This contention falls in line with Fitzgerald’s main thematic idea of class differences and inequality; while Nick is relatively well off, there exist many other people who struggle to get by. Therefore, while Nick is financially and socially stable enough to pursue the American Dream of going to the city to find a fortune, there are many other people who are not able to pursue this same dream.

This idea emphasizes the fact that inequality can inhibit the ability for many to pursue and achieve the American Dream, and it suggests a reason for why the wealthy people such as Gatsby and Buchanan are able to live extravagantly while the impoverished people in the Valley of Ashes are unable to ever amass that large amount of money. Nick Carraway’s awareness of the plight of the poor evidences education and awareness as a possible solution to the problem of rampant and extreme inequality; while Buchanan and most of his “Old Money” peers may be oblivious to the immense lack of privilege that the disadvantaged experience, Carraway is aware of it, since he is not as blinded and absorbed in an opulent lifestyle as Buchanan is. If wealthy people become aware of exactly how large the gap between their wealth and that of the impoverished is, they may be more inclined to participate in humanitarian and other aid missions.

In “Maxed Out”, James Scurlock explores how to concept of inequality discussed in Gatsby and “Disadvantages” can be spurred on by irresponsible credit card companies. Towards the beginning of his essay, Scurlock quotes the mother of a college student who was victimized by credit companies; the mother says that “it’s the college students who get the credit card offers. So we’re setting up a two-tiered system, and I believe that they are manipulating the students. An easy market!” (Scurlock 153). By referencing this woman, Scurlock conveys to the reader that credit companies are specifically targeting a group of students in order to ensnare them in a cyclical trap of credit card debt. This idea of targeting a specific group of people suggests that unchecked and unregulated credit companies may use sales tactics that polarize and encourage the growth of economic inequality in America.

For example, Scurlock posits that credit companies generally target students from a lower socioeconomic background; as a result, these students fall into massive amounts of debt and are therefore unable to pursue their dreams, since they are forced to first find ways to pay off their debt. This idea relates to Deresiewicz’s contention in the fact that the targeting and separation of students by socioeconomic status results in a compounding inequality that grows exponentially over time. Just as Deresiewicz argues that the elite education circuit causes a widening in the gap between rich and poor by determining the future social class structure, Scurlock argues that credit companies’ predatory activities result in a widening of the same gap. Scurlock’s contention also ties in with Gatsby’s thematic idea of decreased social mobility; if specific students are cherry-picked as targets by credit companies, this is bound to decrease social mobility for a specific socioeconomic group. An effective and important way to fix this problem would be to institute regulation for credit companies; by establishing specific areas in which credit companies are not allowed to solicit credit cards or other such products, it would be possible to curb the amount of debt that students fall into.

In “Disadvantages,” Deresiewicz also makes an explicit statement about the way that elite education reduces the ability of those who receive a second- or third-tier education to attain the American Dream. Towards the end of his essay, he comments that “the disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have and the elite we’re going to have” (Deresiewicz 435). Here, Deresiewicz implies that the tiered system of education in the United States today has resulted in the creation of a rigid class structure. The rigidity of the class structure, Deresiewicz believes, has resulted in the lack of socioeconomic mobility for those who have not received an elite education. This ties in with his statement regarding how elite education makes one oblivious to the plight of those less fortunate as well as with The Great Gatsby for several reasons. If the current tiered system of college education is a precursor to the class structure of the future, it is likely that the vast majority of the elite will have little or no exposure to the less fortunate and will thus remain oblivious to the immense inequality that results. This will, in turn, cause a cyclical path of inequality.

Ultimately, having an education system that acts as a predetermining force of class structure further propagates and facilitates the growth of inequality in the United States. This inequality eventually precludes those with a lower form of college education from achieving the American Dream, since their alma mater has already dictated what their role in the societal pyramid is. This ties in to the lack of social mobility expressed in Gatsby through the Valley of Ashes. Just as there are many people today who simply cannot find a way to break into the upper or upper middle classes, the people in the Valley of Ashes are unable to find a way out of their dire situation. A way to solve this problem is to encourage companies to look for talent in second- and third-tier schools as well as in elite schools; this will ensure that students of all educational backgrounds have an equal chance of achieving their dream of being successful. Scurlock also uses anecdotes in order to evidence his point about the predatory nature of credit companies today and how their actions spur economic inequality.

Towards the end of his essay, Scurlock mentions that the student who he previously mentioned to have fallen into debt upon going to college “moved back home and tried to figure out a way to declare bankruptcy, finish school, and somehow get a law degree, his dream” (Scurlock 155). Through this anecdote, Scurlock implies that the immense debt that students fall into as a result of coming across easy credit cripples them to the point where they are no longer able to follow their dreams. The fact that the student Scurlock is referencing chooses to go as far as ending his life soon after coming back home is a shocking piece of evidence that supports the contention that predatory credit company practices can have immense effects on the lives of their victims and that these practices can preclude a large number of people from pursuing and achieving the American Dream.

When viewed in conjunction with Scurlock’s comment about how credit companies are creating a tiered system and how they are targeting specific groups, it becomes clear that the predatory actions of credit companies are widening economic inequality and that they are inhibiting people from being able to achieve the American Dream. The inability for people lower in the class structure to achieve the American Dream is also referenced in Deresiewicz’s essay; in “Disadvantages,” Deresiewicz writes about how elite education institutions are resulting in the creation of a stiff and unchangeable social class structure. This idea ties into Scurlock’s thematic argument in that both speak towards the cyclical nature of the ensnarement and lack of opportunity experienced by the lower class. A possible fix to this problem is educating college students of the danger of accumulating credit card debt. Although some may argue that several lines of logic presented as support for the thesis represent an anecdotal fallacy, this argument is not enough to debase the central contention of the thesis.

Some of the main arguments used, especially in “Maxed Out”, are anecdotal. In Scurlock’s essay, the argument is framed around a story about a college student who fell into massive amounts of debt, even though he was a generally gifted student. Though Scurlock’s referencing of only a few individuals may be viewed as fallacious, the truth remains that Scurlock’s anecdote is representative of a large number of people in the United States today. Sean, the student that Scurlock speaks of, may not be representative of every single college student today, but his experience is hardly singular; in fact, in the class of 2013, college students are graduating with an average of $32,500 of debt (Ellis 1). Thus, the use of an anecdote as evidence for the thesis is, in this case, justified as it presents an argument that is applicable to a vast number of college students and graduates.

As shown by The Great Gatsby, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” and “Maxed Out,” the American Dream may not necessarily be universally accessible. Gatsby emphasizes the contrast between the ultra-rich and those who are not capable of achieving the same wealth and dreams solely as a result of their circumstances. “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” goes one step further and argues that the current system of higher education in the United States is one of the primary problems that precludes a large subset of the American population from pursuing the American Dream. In the essay, Deresiewicz argues that the same contrast that is highlighted in Gatsby not only exists, but is further polarized by the meritocratic and classist nature of modern American higher education. In “Maxed Out,” Scurlock offers another reason for the inaccessibility of the American Dream; predatory business practices. He argues that since credit companies target specific, disadvantaged subsets of the college student population, inequality is exponentially growing and, as a result, those who are disadvantaged are not able to pursue their dreams of success.

Together, these three works offer a critique of the accessibility of the American Dream and offer reasons for why this Dream may not be attainable to all. When viewed together, The Great Gatsby, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” and “Maxed Out” provide an in-depth look at the inaccessibility of the American Dream and the role that inequality plays in making this dream less in reach. Gatsby acts as an excellent introduction to the dire poverty that those who are less fortunate can live in and how this poverty can preclude them from achieving the wealth of their richer peers; it also shows how oblivious the rich can be to the plight of the underprivileged.

“The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Maxed Out” both offer specific social and economic problems that result in exponential growth in terms of inequality. Ultimately, in order to fix the immense inequality that has arisen as a result of a tiered education system and predatory business practices, it is important to educate the wealthy of the plight of the less fortunate, and in turn, encourage them to use their wealth for meaningful social change, to ensure that credit companies are responsible in their business tactics, and to educate students about the danger of debt. By doing this, it is possible to ensure that all Americans are socially and financially stable enough to pursue the American Dream and that this dream is accessible to all.

Works Cited

  1. Deresiewicz, William. “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” The Contemporary Reader. Ed. Gary Goshgarian. 10th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011. 427-35. Print.
  2. Ellis, Blake. “Class of 2013 Grads Average $35,200 in Total Debt.” CNNMoney. CNNMoney, 17 May 2013. Web.
  3. Goshgarian, Gary. The Contemporary Reader. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.
  4. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. N.p.: n.p., n.d. EBooks@Adelaide. The University of Adelaide. Web.
  5. Scurlock, James D. “Maxed Out.” The Contemporary Reader. Ed. Gary Goshgarian. 10th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011. 153-55. Print.

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How Extreme Inequality Makes the American Dream Inaccessible. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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