Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: Flaws in the American Dream

by Gabrielle Himel on February 21, 2014

stressed student

“The American Dream”, the idea that anyone can reach the top echelons of society with just a hard work and motivation, has long been the symbol of American culture and values. For many generations, the opportunities and freedom it offered drew people from across the globe to our shores. However, new data suggests that pursuing these dreams might come at a heavy cost to our health.

Higher social status has long been associated with better health outcomes, including longer lifespan as well as less illness occurrence overall. However, new research, such as Gene Brody’s findings from The Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia, demonstrate how the added stress of trying to climb the social ladder can adversely affect health. In his findings, children from lower socioeconomic groups who were deemed “resilient” by their teachers demonstrated higher resistance to negative external factors such as drugs and violence. They also tended to perform better in school. In long-term studies though, the health of this group of students was worse than those of their classmates who were not deemed “resilient”. The relentless difficulty of trying to perform academically, professionally and socially can permanently increase levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Similarly, the lifestyle associated with achieving goals of this type often requires sacrifices such as less time spent sleeping, exercising and relaxing, as well as falling to the mercy of comfort and convenience foods, which are often nutritionally poor. The health problems that arise from these risks run the gamut from an increase in colds to a higher instance of deadly chronic diseases such as type II diabetes and hypertension. The payoff from moving up the social ladder via education and training might not be able to compensate for the associated losses in health.

While this is an issue for people everywhere, it particularly affects the poorest groups, namely minorities. In addition to having to fight for their health on the journey up, disadvantaged people must first conquer the hurdle of trying to climb upwards. Beginning in poverty, these groups are more likely to be exposed to different risk factors such as higher rates of violence, poorer housing and less access to medical services. These factors alone are known to negatively impact health. Many people hope that by gaining status and wealth they can minimize these risks and achieve greater overall health. Unfortunately, what social benefit they do receive is often overshadowed by the negative consequences that they endured to reach that point.

This raises ethical questions about the disparities seen in the varying levels of health in different social classes. An English study called “ Social Mobility: Evidence that it can widen health inequalities” points out that during the transition between social groups, the health of the “mobile” class can fall even farther below the class that they left behind. Thus, the disparities between groups, as well as within groups increase. It is this “mobile” class that Brody refers to as well. The “resilient” students are the ones who have the ability and determination to move through social classes. The discrepancies seem between these social groups in terms of both education and health is daunting.

What is truly shocking about these findings is the implications that they have for social mobility and status groups not only in the US but throughout the global population as well. Many disadvantaged groups, such as women, minorities and young people, particularly in developing countries, are poised at a crossroads in which upward social movement or continued poverty. Whether the resilience of these groups is adequate to propel them out of poverty is meaningless if their health will suffer as a consequence. Efforts should be placed not in remedying these issues once they are already contracted, but in addressing them as they arise during the transition between social classes. For instance, special programs devoted to stress management and health education, as well as preventative screenings have the potential to greatly alleviate the added health risks of trying to improve one’s social status.



Boyle, Norman, and Popham. “Social Mobility: Evidence that it can widen health inequalities” Social Science and Medicine. 68. 10. (2009) : 1835-1842. Web.

Brody, Chen, and Miller. “Can Upward Mobility Cost You Your Health?” New York Times. 4 January 2014. Web.

Economic and Social Research Council. “Health Inequalities Continue to Undermine Social Mobility”. 2012. Web.

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