For much of the last two centuries, America has represented freedom: freedom to start anew, freedom to build something from nothing, and freedom to be whatever type of person you desire to be. It is coined as the land of opportunity for so many people around the world because, despite obvious race and class inequalities like in much of the world, people from all walks of life still have the potential to make something incredible, particularly in business ventures. From the mid 19th century to the mid 20th, it seemed as if the streets of America were lined with gold. From the glamour of movie stars in Hollywood, to railroad tycoons like Vanderbilt, to even self-made African American women millionaires like Madame C.J. Walker, wealth and opportunity had always seemed at least a possibility. For this reason, expats from all over the world have always flocked to America in droves. This dream of opportunity was worth chasing for so many people.
However, a lot has changed in the last several decades. We still see self-made millionaire (and often billionaire) entrepreneurs. Just look at pretty much any industry and you can find someone who has worked incredibly hard and is currently living the American dream of extreme wealth and opportunity. Whether you are Beyonce, Mark Zuckerburg, Samuel L. Jackson, or Elon Musk, you are living the American dream in the 21st century.
While there are expat success stories in America, it is important to question whether these opportunities are true for everyone or just a select few. It is still possible to work incredibly hard and still be able to find a wealth of opportunities as an immigrant in America?
Compared to their European brothers, America is an incredibly diverse nation which is widely recognised as a ‘melting pot’ of thousands of cultures and languages. For the last several hundred years (well up until the last couple of decades) America had widely embraced immigrants and refugees from all over the world, incorporating their words, cuisines, cultures and practices into the fabric of American life. This multi-culturalism is widely seen in all parts of American life and is present in the diversity of the workforce and the ability of employers to openly accept people from all over the world. For people who might struggle to get career opportunities in their home nation due to their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, there is a good chance that these barriers based on identity will be non-existent for those coming to America as an expat. In general, you would be afforded the same opportunities as anyone else and will be judge on your ability not your culture.
Accessing Healthcare in America
Probably the biggest adjustment to life in America for any expat is the lack of universal healthcare. Despite being the largest global economy, surpassing China’s GDP by over seven trillion, America is still the only developed country in the world without universal healthcare for it citizens. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 — widely recognised as Obamacare — has made health insurance affordable for millions of people living in poverty. However, the healthcare, insurance, and pharmaceutical industry in America is massive and has barely been affected by the ACA. In 2021, millions of people continue to live in the USA without any sort of healthcare and balance a line between seeking necessary healthcare and risking total destitution.
You need to work hard for your opportunities
As the ultimate symbol of global commerce and the centre stone of ‘pulling yourself by your bootstraps’, many Americans believe that it is every individual’s responsibility to work as hard as they possibly can and that this hard work will eventually lead to wealth and opportunity, or at least a comfortable standard of living. This means that the safety nets of a state-funded welfare system which is well established in many other developed countries, is virtually non-existent in America. In fact, the primary criticism against a universal healthcare system in the USA is that the people who have worked hard enough to earn a lot of money are angered by the suggestion that they should contribute to the healthcare of other people.
If you are lucky enough to find a good paying job with a great benefits package, you will be expected to work hard for it. Most Americans are generally only offered 2 weeks holiday per year; however, this is not a legal requirement like the UK’s statutory 5 weeks holiday pro rata for all employees. Similarly, American employers are only required to give their employees 6 weeks of maternity pay, compared to 6 months in the UK, and this is only for salaried positions.
Land of Opportunity?
It can still be argued that American is still the land of opportunity, at least as much as it was 100 years ago. Contemporary society and history alike tend to focus on the success stories, the one person in 100 that managed to create something extraordinary from almost nothing. Are there people capable of living the American dream by ‘pulling themselves up by their bootstraps’. Yes, most definitely. Just look at most of the famous wealthy people in America. Many of them started simply by having a dream, an idea, working incredibly hard, and getting lucky. People like Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan are great examples of living the American dream through wealth and opportunity gained by hard work in the old fashioned capitalist way.
However, it is important to remember that people like Oprah are the exception, not the rule. Is it possible to become wealthy in American from absolute poverty? Yes, most certainly. It is likely? Definitely not. Most Americans work incredibly hard, its ingrained in the culture. They are taught from a young age that nothing is given for free (except by some miracle our education) and that they have to work constantly to maintain a decent quality of life, not just to obtain wealth and prosperity.
If you love what you do and you want to do that every day for the rest of your life, becoming an expat in America might be a good idea, particularly if you already have access to your dream job. However, if work is just something that you have to do to get by and you would rather be lying a on a beach, then America may not be the best option. There are plenty of other countries in the world that have a better work-life balance and state welfare systems as a security net for those unfortunate times when you might not be able to work.
As easy as it may be to become a millionaire, or billionaire, in America, it is important to remember that it is also much easier to become destitute and homeless. When deciding whether or not to move to America, it is probably best to consider which of these extremes are you more likely to reach based on your current circumstances.