Though he didn’t understand the significance of it during his childhood, Bob McKinnon’s hometown of Chelsea, Massachusetts was also where Horatio Alger–19th-century spinner of the rags-to-riches tales that built the sentimental backbone of the American Dream–was born. McKinnon grew up the son of a single mother, a bartender who relocated the family to a rural Pennsylvania trailer park after meeting and marrying a truck driver. His family was on food stamps and Medicaid. His brother became a factory worker; his sister a truck driver. McKinnon was the only one of his family to go to college. After a successful career in marketing, he founded GALEWiLL, a nonprofit organization that focuses on creating solutions to social issues and inequities.
That his own life story should closely ascribe to the structure of a modern-day Horatio Alger story is not lost on McKinnon. “I went through urban poverty and rural poverty, but I was really fortunate and worked hard and was met with success on a whole lot of levels,” McKinnon tells Fast Company. “And of course, going through this, you’re confronted with all these stories about the American Dream and how nothing holds anyone back. But you also stop and reflect and think: Numerically, I’m not supposed to be where I am right now.”
Cresting the heights of the American Dream is, in the popular imagination, often seen as a matter of brute-force bootstrapping: Who can work the hardest to overcome their odds? Who can persevere in the face of the harshest adversity? The roles of luck, or circumstance, or the invisible marionette strings of the job market and the economy are never considered, McKinnon says. Success in America is a marketed as a man-made phenomenon.
A new project from GALEWiLL and funded by the Ford Foundation, called the Your American Dream Score, deflates that idea that success–or lack thereof–is purely one’s own doing. The calculator is a part of a larger initiative, Moving Up: The Truth About Getting Ahead In America, which comprehensively examines the factors that contribute to mobility in America, and why changing one’s circumstances is far more difficult than the folklore leads up to believe (Fast Company has syndicated some of Moving Up’s articles). The reasons are myriad: wide disparities in educational quality, access to resources like healthy food, and social and familial support are just a slice. But too often, McKinnon says, when someone “makes it out”–like him–the only reason offered up is: “He worked hard.” When someone doesn’t make it out, the reason is: “He didn’t work hard enough.”
Using the Your American Dream Score, you see how many factors beyond the self play into one’s outcomes. The five-minute-long quiz, developed by the firm Sol Design, first asks you to enter your demographic information, then moves into more personal questions: What personality traits would your friends ascribe to you? What was your family situation growing up? How has your health been your whole life? How about your friendships? Have you received government benefits?
You’re then given a score out of 100, with scores starting at 45 to reflect a baseline of individual effort. “We realized if we did not have that floor some might feel as if their own efforts were being discounted,” McKinnon says. If you score less than 53, that means you have all factors working in your favor and have less to overcome; 54-65, the majority of factors have been on your side; 66-79, you’ve had more working against than for you; 80 and above, you’ve been dealt a tough hand.
By getting people to think more holistically about the factors that contribute to success, McKinnon wants to break down what he sees as the two most harmful fallouts of the self-made-person mythology that still persists in America. “On the one hand, you have this idea of the American Dream, and that’s important to have in a way because it gives people hope,” McKinnon says. “But then I started wondering: Is it actually limiting?” Take a school that’s clearly underperforming, McKinnon says. “Instead of fixing the school, people can point to the two kids that made it out and say: Why doesn’t everyone work as hard as they do?”
And then there’s the fact often, people who “make it” forget the path they took to arrive where they are now. This phenomenon is called fundamental attribution bias, and it’s perhaps best explained by a 2012 study done by Paul Piff, a researcher at UC Berkeley who set up a rigged game of Monopoly, in which one player–determined by a coin flip–started out with twice the money as the other, and got to drive a model Rolls Royce around the board, while the opponent was relegated to an old shoe. While the player who started out with the most money invariably won the game, they never, Piff found, attributed their victory to their initial advantage–instead, they pointed to their superior strategy or skill.
This type of reasoning infects the American understanding of success, and McKinnon wants to put an end to it. “There’s a growing body of research that suggests that when people reflect in a more nuanced way on their own journey or other people’s, they become more grateful for the things that have helped them, they become more supportive of those who are struggling, and they more actively engage in ways to help people,” McKinnon says. By being more upfront about the substantial difference external factors make–especially those like food stamps and housing assistance, which people often avoid discussion out of fear of stigma–we can, McKinnon says, begin to turn more attention to supporting those very systems that make mobility possible.
Part of the Your American Dream Score’s efficacy, McKinnon says, will lie in its reach–Moving Up partnered with WNET, the flagship station of PBS which will host Your American Dream Score through its Chasing the Dream initiative, and is engaging celebrities and business leaders to ensure the web platform is publicized in all communities in America, where the tool can offer perspective on people’s circumstances. But the calculator also tells users what they can do with that perspective: At the end of the quiz, users are directed to a number of resources for support and further information, as well as volunteer opportunities and prompts to thank people in their lives. The Moving Up team will also be releasing a discussion guide for schools and other organizations to discuss the factors in a structured way.
Through getting that conversation going, McKinnon hopes to “begin to figure out how we can make more investments in these tailwinds–these things that we know do help people move forward,” he says. “But it has to start with figuring out how we can tell the story better.”