Jennifer Lanski
American Dream
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““American Dream” (Hattiesburg, Mississippi)”     India ink and lightfast colored pencil on BFK Rives paper     14” × 12”     2008–2009

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(top) Hattiesburg, Mississippi
(bottom) Thirteen thousand, six hundred and fifty-nine hours at minimum wage (June 2008)
“American Dream” is one work consisting of 50 drawings, one for each state in the United States. Conceived of at a point when the housing market was irrationally inflated (before the bubble burst) and the federal minimum wage had not been raised in quite some time, the work investigates the attainability of the American Dream through the ideal that hard work can lead to home ownership. The project spans one year (May 2008 through April 2009), with four drawings for each month, except the summer months of July and August, which have five drawings each.

For each drawing, a house was selected that was on the real estate market in the specified month (indicated on the drawing at the end of the line of text below the image of the house). The asking price of the house was converted into the number of hours of labor at minimum wage (in that location and at that time) that would be required to equal the asking price of the house. This converted “asking price” is given in the line of small text under the image of the house in each drawing. The location of the house (city and state) is given in larger text above the image of the house.

Various criteria were used to select the house to be drawn for each state. First, the house chosen is located in the same city and zip code as a Target (or a WalMart if there was no Target in that state at that time). The house chosen is a modest, two-bedroom, single-family house; a reasonable entry point into the American Dream. In order to control somewhat for an “accurate” measure of the value of the house, any house that was in foreclosure, a short sale, bank owned, being flipped (determined by whether the house had been sold within the past few years), or new construction (since these houses were significantly larger in square footage than older houses) was excluded from consideration. Also, any house that needed work or fixing up before it would be ready for inhabiting was excluded (based on descriptions on the websites), since that would require additional financial cost not included in the asking price.

The source images for the houses generally came from real estate websites. Additionally, states were randomly assigned to months over the one-year period, with the control that no state would be assigned a month in which the minimum wage for that state would be changing partway through the month. In a state with a minimum wage lower than the federal minimum wage, the higher federal minimum wage was used (rather than the lower state minimum wage) since large employers like Target and WalMart would be subject to the federal minimum wage.

Considering that a standard full-time workweek is 40 hours, and assuming 50 weeks of work per year, there are 2,000 hours of labor in one year. With the conventional wisdom that an affordable house is one that is not more than three years' wages, any house with an asking price equivalent to no more than 6,000 hours of labor at minimum wage is thus considered affordable; any house requiring more than 6,000 hours of labor would be out of reach. As the work shows, in most cases the American Dream (by this definition) is now out of reach.

When approaching the work in person, initially only the images of the houses and the large text with the locations are visible. Only upon closer inspection does the smaller, lower line of text become evident, at which point the understanding of the work may shift with this additional information.

The final twelve drawings of this project were completed during a residency at the Vermont Studio Center (where some of the 50 drawings were also shown). “American Dream” has been exhibited in its entirety in Los Angeles and Indianapolis.