This piece was originally posted on Rational Urbanism, the blog of one of our members, Steve Shultis. It is reprinted here with his permission.

A story which has been written, rewritten, and written yet again in an endless chain for as long as I can remember is the narrative about the American family no longer being able to fully live the American Dream.

Inevitably the storyteller will harken back to the 50’s with images of idyllic “Leave it to Beaver” neighborhoods, dads leaving for work, kids walking to school, and moms waving goodbye at the door.

Cut to a contemporary family sitting around a light colored pine kitchen table, rows of similarly colored kitchen cabinets in the background (bagel slicer on the counter, no art on the walls) with one parent preparing to leave for work, the other just returning from work, and the children wolfing down cereal before heading off to school with one of their underemployed parents at the wheel.

Later the reporter will be pictured sitting at that same table with the couple beside a laptop computer and a pile of bills. The ridiculousness of their financial situation will be laid out: thousands a month for a mortgage, property taxes, and insurance; hundreds and hundreds more for two or three cars, auto maintenance and more insurance; credit card debt, student loans, groceries, utilities, and normal household expenses all put solvency well out of reach for these people.

We’ll be told that a previously well paying job was lost, perhaps a medical issue with its expense and employment impacts made what seemed affordable not so affordable.. 

There is an almost completely unnoticed irony to the whole thing though. A house, an original house from the 1950’s golden age referenced at the beginning of the story is still there, and available for 1/3 or maybe 1/5 the price of the one where the kitchen table discussion is taking place. Living there would have enabled the family to get by with perhaps one car and maybe even one income, at least for a period of time.

The reduced monthly financial pressure could have kept them out of debt. It’s even conceivable that the reduced stress and strain on the parents of not having to be chauffeurs for their children, and the consistent physical activity of walking nearly everywhere “might” have mitigated the health problem. 

Be that as it may, the one part of the story comparing the achieve-ability of the American Dream of today to its 50’s counterpart which is completely ignored is that today’s American Dream has been SUPERSIZED, and s u p e r s p r a w l e d. The average home of yesterday’s American Dream was tiny by today’s standards and was located in a much denser neighborhood.

Having your kids go to college is different from the expectation that they must attend a prestigious private college, live away from home for 4 years, and have their own automobile while doing so. 

In my region, at the very least, the inability to live the American Dream on the average household salary means that you’ve decided, consciously or otherwise, that the neighborhoods and houses of the 1950’s American Dream are simply not good enough for you. Here are some homes available today with the asking price posted: 

Yes, the truth is, by today’s standards these homes sit in denser neighborhoods and on smaller lots. On the other hand the quality of construction and materials is clearly higher in the older homes. What’s the real impediment then to living this less expensive life, what’s really causing that mountain of bills to pile up on that table in the kitchen with the cathedral ceiling?

Yes, it is “keeping up with the Joneses” to a certain degree, but what are the Joneses moving away from that makes keeping up with them so expensive? Oh, yeah. Poor, often brown, people. It’s not that people really don’t want huge homes and enormous lots; I think they do, but the older, sometimes larger homes, on the smaller lot in increasingly desirable walkable neighborhoods are eschewed because of price in white wealthy communities. Yet it is precisely because the low price allows “those people” to also live in those neighborhoods, that those homes are rejected in poor, urban communities, which is to say it is neither the house, nor the density.

Given that, I’d love to walk into that kitchen, like Chris Hanson “To Catch a Predator” style, and ask the parents if they looked in “that” neighborhood, you know, the one a few miles “that way” for a home they could actually afford without a balloon payment loan or anything:
“But, but, but, the crime…and my children’s education…”

Maybe the most important lesson you could teach your children is to live within their means.

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Steve Shultis lives in an older neighborhood in Springfield, MA. He discusses his own experience raising a family in a less affluent neighborhood on his blog and also on an episode of our podcast earlier this year. Steve walks the walk.