What It Truly Means To Be An American Essay Format

If you’re willing to work hard, you can be successful and build a good life for you and your family. That’s what millions of Americans have believed for generations. But is it still true?

Our film Two American Families chronicles the Stanleys and the Neumans of Milwaukee as they struggle for two decades to make ends meet — only to fall further behind. It’s a familiar story to so many Americans over the past two decades.

What’s happening to the American Dream?

FRONTLINE teamed up with Moyers & Company to ask our online community what the American Dream means today, and how it’s changed.

Some of you told us that the American Dream remains a beacon of hope, but many more told us they believe that the dream is dead.

Then there are those of you somewhere in the middle, who believe the dream is still alive — but needs a lot of work.

What do you think? And what’s your story of getting by in the new American economy?

Here are some thoughts that caught our attention. And be sure to read a special note on the reaction to Two American Families from filmmaker Tom Casciato.

The American Dream Has Become Just Getting By:

Nancy Fellenz The American Dream used to be a home in the suburbs, a good job, raising your family. Now we have been relegated to survival mode.

Wednesday at 1:53am

Chris Murray If I can make to the end of my life without having to live out of a shopping cart, I'll call it a success. I'm honestly not joking and I have a law degree.

Tuesday at 7:49pm via mobile

Chuck Baginksi The American dream is to someday get a job that pays enough to pay off your student loans before you die.

Tuesday at 7:20pm via mobile

John Manager To me, there isn't much of one. After three years out of work, I'm just focused on survival. Got no time or money for dreams.

Tuesday at 6:51pm via mobile

Steve Vogt The American Dream now means to simply have a job and to be out of debt. Simple as that.

Tuesday at 6:45pm

Jan Smith I think at one time the American dream meant having a place to call your own, get a house paid for, have a job you liked, transportation, take a vacation now and then. Those things didn't seem so out of reach. Now it's about survival. I worry constantly the car will break down or anything at all will go wrong to prevent me paying the bills. And many people worry if they will eat or have a roof over their head at all. The American dream has been stolen.

Tuesday at 6:36pm


The American Dream Is Just A Delusion:

Willie Fuchs WOW!! What a wake up call for America! This was an amazing documentary. It reminds me of similar stories of what Americans experienced during and after the 1929 depression. John Steinbeck's, “Grapes of Wrath”, reflects much of what this documentary portrayed. Both families reflect the continuous battle which working class Americans deal with year in and year out. The American dream, for many families such as these two, has become the American nightmare. The promises by politicians, corporations, and the religious communities have been unfulfilled and replaced with more lies. The rich continue to get richer, while the working class bear the burden of bad business decisions, corporate greed, and the same old lies spouted by politicians. We can and do become victims of our illusions of the “American Dream.”

Wednesday at 1:26pm

Karel Van Horn-Seldner The “American Dream” was never more than an ideological carrot waved in front of the working class. I would say this carrot waving was partially responsible for the recession - look at all those folks who got sucked into a sub prime mortgage, trying to secure their “American dream house.”

Tuesday at 7:17pm

Deborah Elston The American Dream to me includes a healthy, hard-working, supported middle class. Unfortunately, this is gone. We now live in a time of CEOs making millions while the workers lose benefits, pensions and jobs. I am a college grad who will never attain what my parents did - both of whom did not even finish high school. Never in a million years did I think I would live to see the decimation of the American middle class and yet, that day has arrived...

Tuesday at 6:34pm


The American Dream Is Alive (But It Might Need Work):

Jasper Bloodsworth To me the American Dream is the ever hopeful future. Something to keep loving and trying for. To me it isn't changing as much as it is going through real tough times.

Tuesday at 6:31pm

Raul Perez The American Dream is to me give my kids a better life than I had when I was growing up. I grew up on minimum wage and lunch tickets. Now I am a homeowner and a Navy Veteran that doesn't take anything for granted.

Tuesday at 8:42pm via mobile

Wesley Ratko The concept of an American dream means meritocracy, where hard work and perseverance can mean financial success without the necessity of connections or a family name. I still believe in that, but I think it's harder now than it ever has been. It's under fire now from wealthy people who want to take as much as possible for themselves, without any consideration about the long term consequences of a diminished middle class. Greed is destroying the American Dream.

Tuesday at 6:55pm via mobile

A Note from Two American Families  filmmaker, Tom Casciato

The reaction to Kathleen Hughes’ and my film, Two American Families, has been extremely gratifying. Thoughtful reviews in The New Yorker, Salon, The Guardian, Variety and The Nation made it clear that people were moved by the stories of the Neumanns and the Stanleys. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the families, we have learned, is how unremarkable their stories are to so many Americans who have lived these past two decades under the same circumstances. In fact, the most moving response I’ve seen was posted by a blogger I had never heard of at a site called penny prudence.com. She wrote of watching the film:

“At times I cried such that I could not speak. Why? Because Frontline could have filmed our family in Detroit, over the same period of time, and much of the story would have been the same … I was three-years-old the first time I saw my grandparents come through our back door with groceries … To this day, I can see the motion they make as the door pushes open, what they are wearing, what their glasses look like, how happy they are to see me standing there waiting for them. I ask ‘Grandma! Grandpa! Why do you have groceries?!’ and my grandfather, setting them on the kitchen table before picking me up, says ‘We accidentally bought too many and they’ll go bad!’ I knew, even then, that it wasn’t true, that my grandparents would never do such a thing, and that it meant things were bad – really bad. I knew this in a deep sense without really having the vocabulary to describe it.”

The comments shared in this post about the state of the American Dream — like the stories of the Neumanns and Stanleys — speak both to the economic difficulties ordinary Americans face, and the resilience with which they face them.

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What does it mean to be American? Historian Philip Gleason once said, ”To be or to become an American, a person did not have to be any particular national, learning languages, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and republicanism. Thus the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American.” Essentially, what Gleason is saying is that all one has to do is act like an American and embrace the American way of life, but is this really what it means to actually be American? In this essay I will explore whether or not it is enough to embrace the culture, or if there is more to identifying yourself as an American by examining some key elements of American culture.

One of the big defining factors in terms of being an American is embracing the right of free speech. Outside of the United States, many people would say that Americans are loud and obnoxious, or perhaps if they were being a little kinder they might say that Americans can be very upfront! This is because freedom of speech is a big part of the American culture and citizens are very much encouraged to speak their mind and freely express their own opinions. This can seem a little overbearing in other cultures where this is not the norm, but once people realize that American’s are not being intentionally rude they often come to understand that it can actually be very useful to simply state what you mean, rather than try to be polite and end up making ambiguous statements. As Ghandi once said, ‘A “no” uttered from the deepest conviction is better and greater then a “yes” uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.’ Freedom of speech is something that is so important to American culture that it is actually protected by The First Amendment to the United states Constitution, although of course there are restrictions! Freedom of speech does not give Americans the right to engage in hate speech. After all, another part of American life is the acceptance of various cultures and religions that may be different to your own.

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This leads us to the next important point – being American means that you are part of one of the most diverse cultures in the world. America is one of very few countries in the world where it is near impossible to define the nationality by one race, ancestry or religion. America is a melting pot of different cultures and religions and it is difficult to find anyone who does not come from immigrant bloodlines from Europe and Africa. In fact, some say that anyone not of Native American decent is actually not technically American! However, we do not use race or ancestry to determine what it means to be American. This is not what defines us, but rather our unique political, economic and social values. To drive home the fact that Americans are from all manner of backgrounds we need only look to the Great Seal of the United States which reads ”E pluribus unum”. This translates to English as From many, one. So, being American is not being of one particular race or religion. It may not even mean being born in the United States, taking the citizenship test and becoming a citizen can also make someone an American if they are able to fully embrace what America stands for.

When most people think of America, some of the first things that come to mind are words like freedom or liberty. We have already touched on this when taking about freedom of speech, but freedom and liberty are very important in the American culture and are a big part of what it means to be an American. American citizens have the freedom to live the lives that they choose and are passionate about retaining that right which so many of their predecessors have fought and died for.

In conclusion, to be American is not as simple as being born in the United States. To be an American is about embracing the culture and way of life. Americans can enjoy freedom of speech and are part of a diverse and rich culture. An American is someone who embraces freedom and liberty. In short, to be an American, it is necessary to embrace the culture and become a part of it regardless of where you were actually born!


Philip Gleason, “American Identity and Americanization,” in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. Stephan Thernstrom (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1980), 31–32, 56–57.

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