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Shirley Leung

Is the American dream dead, deferred, or just different?

Kerry Healey.
Kerry Healey.Webb Chappell for the Boston Globe

Kerry Healey has been thinking a lot about the American Dream and what that even means in 2019.

“Both the concept and reality of American Dream are both under fire today,” Healey, 59, told me.

It’s what you expect to hear on the presidential campaign trail these days, but Healey — the former Babson College president and Massachusetts lieutenant governor — isn’t running for office. She’s off to her next gig working for former junk bond king turned philanthropist Michael Milken who is creating a Center for Advancing the American Dream in Washington.

Healey, who officially starts next week and is moving to D.C., will be the nonpartisan center’s inaugural president, overseeing what she describes as “part museum, part think tank/do tank, part conference center. It wants to be a convener for everyone who is doing work in this area.”

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The center, along with other Milken Institute offshoots, will be housed in a collection of three historic buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House and Treasury. The renovation of those buildings is expected to be completed in 2022.

An examination of the American Dream might sound like an ivory tower exercise, but the concept has new relevancy in a nation deeply divided over a vision for the future.

A poll conducted in February by RealClear Opinion Research found that the American Dream isn’t dead yet, but our optimism is being tested. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed indicated that the American Dream is under strain: 37 percent say it is “alive and under threat,” while another 28 percent say it is “under serious threat, but there is still hope.”

Healey agrees. She believes anxiety over the American Dream runs deep, to the point of: What exactly is it now?

“The American Dream once meant having more money than your parents, or owning a house, or owning a car, or going to college. It might mean something very different today,” she said. Healey cites another study conducted by American Enterprise Institute earlier this year showing how the American Dream is evolving and how people value above all the “freedom of choice in how to live one’s life” more than owning a home, having a successful career, or even becoming wealthy.

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However the American Dream is defined, Healey believes equity has to be part of that discussion. The neighborhood you live in shouldn’t dictate how far you will go in life.

“The question is how do we make sure that opportunity is revived first of all and made available to people evenly throughout geography and neighborhoods?” said Healey.

She had never met Milken until they were introduced through a headhunter. Healey had announced last year that she would step down as Babson president in 2019 after six years at the helm. She was the Wellesley college’s first female president and proudly notes that the Class of 2019 was also the 100-year-old school’s first women-majority group of graduates. Healey also oversaw some $200 million in capital improvements (including new buildings) at Babson.

Milken, who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990 and was banned from the industry, has remade himself as a thought leader and philanthropist. On selecting Healey to run his American Dream center, he said in a statement that she is “uniquely suited for this crucial role, given her background and expertise across entrepreneurship, financial markets, education, and health policy.”

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Milken, who is chairman of the Milken Institute, also added that Healey “embodies the American Dream.”

That can be easy to forget, given the circles Healey runs in today. After serving as Mitt Romney’s lieutenant governor, she ran unsuccessfully as the Republican gubernatorial nominee against Deval Patrick in 2006. Her campaign was in large part bankrolled by her family wealth; her then-husband Sean Healey helped build the investment firm Affiliated Managers Group and at the time had an estimated net worth of at least $100 million. The couple divorced in 2015.

But Kerry Healey grew up modestly in Florida, raised by a mother who was a public school teacher and a father who was disabled or unemployed for most of Healey’s life. Healey worked three jobs in high school, went to Harvard on grants and financial aid, and earned her doctorate in political science and law from Trinity College in Dublin on a Rotary scholarship. “I realize this is not going to be the story for everyone today,” Healey said. “Just because the American Dream existed for generations of Americans doesn’t mean we can put on blinders that it’s always going to be available or that people aren’t working hard enough.”

Of course, it’s easy to point fingers at the occupant in the White House for an America that can feel like a nightmare for many. But Healey won’t blame Donald Trump — or anyone else, for that matter.

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“The joy of this new position . . . it’s unambiguously bipartisan. We are going to work with whomever is in the White House,” she said. “I am going to view it as my job to make sure all these opinions are expressed and fully debated.”

Keeping the American Dream alive — somebody has to do it. It’s no longer a given in this country.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.