Marcus: The elusive American Dream


Morton Marcus

George Carlin once said, “it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it”. But those voices in real estate tell us Home Ownership is the American Dream.

If you check out the American Dream in Wikipedia, you’ll discover “home ownership has been a status symbol separating the middle classes from the poor.”

Home owners are good. Renters are, at best, questionable. Legislators cloyingly protect home owners, but most often wait for a crisis (no water, a fire, disease and distress) before they rediscover the responsibilities of landlords.

Home owners enjoy, perhaps relish, lawn mowing their quarter-acre estates. Home owners gladly assume 30-year obligations to distant and fragmented mortgage holders. Some owners gamble with variable interest rate mortgages and willing suffer the bureaucratic torture of refinancing.

Yet home owners can build real equity, if they survive their mortgages and if home prices advance faster than inflation. Home owners also are “listened to” by dozing zoning officials.

Renters have no real standing. “Poor people have poor ways.” The best of them are only transitory, climbing the ladder to respectability by becoming home owners themselves.

It’s no surprise that the majority of Hoosiers (74%) live in owner-occupied dwellings. The nation can muster only 67% for ownership as opposed to renting.

Of Hoosier householders self-identifying as White alone (meaning no miscegenated blood with Asians, Blacks, Native Americans or other lines of ancestry), 78% live in owner-occupied housing. The figure is just 53% for those other bloodlines. That difference of 25% might be called the racial gap of home ownership.

At the extremes, that gap is 47% in Shelby County and -19% in Owen County. A negative gap means there is a higher percent of All other persons living in owner-occupied housing compared to White alone persons.

Nine Indiana counties have these negative gaps, and, with the exception of Hancock, they are smaller, more rural counties where rental housing may be relatively unavailable.

Of our most populous counties, the largest gap (35%), between the percent of home ownership for White alone and All others, was recorded for Vanderburgh County. Lake’s gap was 30%, Delaware 27%, Tippecanoe, Monroe, Allen and St. Joseph all at 26%. College students and faculty as well as medical workers may be factors here as they tend to have more diverse populations than less economically diverse communities.

A history of hostility to rental housing on NIMBY grounds is probably at work in suburban Boone, Hamilton. Hendricks and Warrick counties. We’ll see what happens there as economic and demographic diversification progresses.

This racial gap is of consequence only if you buy into the American Dream as an aspiration for equality of opportunity. But that may be a minority value these days.

Mr. Marcus is an economist. Follow him and John Guy on the Who Gets What? podcast available at