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Volume 10, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2012

 "As Long As You Work Hard, You Can Achieve Your Goals":
Hungarian Immigrants
on the American Dream


Orsolya Kolozsvari

Georgia State University


    Immigrants to the United States frequently perceive America as the land of endless opportunities and prosperity, and this perception is very frequently a propelling force in the decision for immigration. Through 20 in-depth interviews with middle-class Hungarians who live in the United States I will discuss how immigration to the United States has influenced the perceptions of these Hungarians of opportunities in the United States. I will also highlight how reasons for immigration and perceptions of the American Dream vary by gender. 

    As immigration to the United States is proliferating, while income inequality among native-born Americans, as well as among immigrants is increasing (Clark 2003; Perrucci and Wysong 2008), it is important to reevaluate the role of perceptions of the American Dream in attracting and sustaining new immigrant populations. Are perceptions of the  American Dream still a strong and primary force in drawing newcomers to the United States from other nations, and do they preserve a belief in the American Dream based on their experience in the United States? It largely depends on where immigrants come from, their gender, their skills and education, and whether they encounter discrimination here. 

    Immigration researchers have underlined that polarization between different immigrant groups is escalating (ref needed here). Primarily due to the changing labor demands of a globalized, postindustrial economy, immigrants to the United States are rapidly becoming more and more likely to be either lower-class, low-skilled workers with limited education or highly educated, middle- or upper-middle class professionals (Clark 2003; Portes and Manning 1986; Portes and Zhou 1993; Rumbaut 1997). Immigration research has mainly focused on the struggles that lower-class, mostly uneducated and unskilled or low-skilled immigrants from Central America and Mexico tend to experience in their socioeconomic assimilation (Catanzarite 2000; Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 2003; Menjivar 2003; Zentgraf 2002). Those studies that focus on middle-class, educated immigrants predominantly concentrate on immigrants from Asia who are very highly represented among foreign-born professionals (Alarcon 2000; Clark 2003). The opportunities and socioeconomic gains of recent European, middle-class, educated immigrants are less often discussed, and the gains of men versus women from these groups have not been closely examined either. This study offers a novel dimension to research by focusing on the experiences of a European ethnic group that has very seldom been discussed in the immigration literature: Hungarians. 

Theory and Literature Review

     The American Dream has been a pervasive ideology in American culture for a long time.  It has not only motivated countless native-born Americans, but it has also fascinated millions outside the borders of the United States and drawn them to the "land of opportunity." The main tenet of the Dream is that through hard work anyone can obtain opportunities to succeed, regardless of their background or origins (Clark 2003; Hochschild 1995). While the American Dream incorporates some impalpable values, such as hard work, egalitarianism, freedom and independence, it is mostly manifested in materialism: the attainment of the American Dream is signified by gainful employment, prosperity, and homeownership in a desirable and safe neighborhood (Clark 2003). 

   As the majority of immigrants to the United States are seeking ample opportunities, better jobs, economic advances, and upward mobility for themselves and their children when they decide to move to the United States (Carmon 1996; Lev Ari 2008; Lieberson 1996), it is logical to assume that most new immigrants endorse the American Dream (Hochschild 1995). However, immigrant men are more likely than women to enter the United States in search of stellar opportunities, lucrative jobs, and improved finances. The role of women in immigration and the reasons why they decide to leave their homelands have shifted in recent decades. In earlier waves of immigration, up until around 1965, when the United States relaxed immigration quotas, most of the women who did immigrate to the United States came as dependents of their husbands (Pessar 2003). This suggests that for most of U.S. immigration history, women's migration decisions tended to be gendered and highly dependent on men. However, in the last few decades the upsurge in the postindustrial service economy has generated a labor demand for female immigrants, such as domestic workers, cleaners, and nurses, which means that many women have been able to come to the United States on their own, independently of men (Choy 2000; Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2003; Espiritu 2003; Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 2003; Mahler 2003; Menjivar 2003; Pessar 2003; Zentgraf 2002). 

    Those women who primarily immigrate to the United States to work and better their financial situations can be expected to endorse a stronger belief in the American Dream than those who come to reunite their families. It does not mean that women who decide to migrate because of reasons that are more specific to conventional gender roles might not believe in the American Dream as well, but it is likely that it is less instrumental in their decisions to migrate.

    I have pointed out that the overwhelming majority of female migrants who arrive in the United States in search of work opportunities end up being employed as domestic workers, cleaners, nurses, and sex workers. These professions are all highly gendered, which illustrates that even when migrant women break out of traditional family roles and come to the United States to work, gender still remains dominant in their migration experience. 

    Perceptions of opportunities in the host country also largely depend on pre-migration circumstances (Foner 2001; Mahler 2003; Rumbaut 1997; Zentgraf 2002). Those immigrants who had very restricted opportunities for advancement and in their homelands are more likely to be drawn to the promise of lucrative opportunities in the United States and evaluate the opportunities they do receive upon arrival in a more favorable light than those who were prosperous and had ample opportunities for upward mobility in their native countries. This also suggests that women who are awarded better opportunities and even a higher level of emancipation that they had ever encountered in their homelands might report an increased belief in the American Dream. 

    We can also expect that those immigrants who  obtain economic gains via immigration (Carmon 1996; Foner 2001; Lieberson 1996; Portes et al. 1980; Scott and Scott 1989) will maintain a strong belief in the American Dream as they see it being realized. Due to gender inequality in terms of income, occupational segregation, and the glass ceiling male immigrants might still be more likely to accomplish the American Dream than their female counterparts. 

    Immigrants with a college degree have a better chance of success than their uneducated or undereducated counterparts (Clark 2003; Lev Ari 2008; Schoeni 1998; Scott and Scott 1989). Moreover, age and the duration of stay in the host country, and having two workers in a household can also be positively associated with higher income and professional employment (Clark 2003; Hagan 1998). All of these factors are also crucial for homeownership, which is another key component of the American Dream.

    According to some estimates, about 20% of all immigrant households can be considered middle-class, that is, having realized the American Dream in terms of income (earning a household income of at least $40,000) and homeownership (Clark 2003:64). Within 10 years of arrival, young immigrants double (or even triple) their homeownership rates, and within 20 years of arrival, the majority of immigrants become homeowners, and most of them purchase homes in the suburbs (Clark 2003:132).

    As higher education and professional occupation elevate the chances of the attainment of the American Dream, low levels of education and low-skilled occupation can hinder an immigrant's socioeconomic success by curtailing their incomes and chances for homeownership (Catanzarite 2000; Clark 2003; Hagan 1998; Portes and Manning 1986; Rumbaut 1997; Schoeni 1998; Scott and Scott 1989; Yinger 1985). Furthermore, discrimination based on race/ethnicity impedes some immigrants' socioeconomic success (Catanzarite 2000; England et al. 2004; Gordon 1964; Portes and Zhou 1993; Portes et al. 1980; Yinger 1985). 

     Poor economic opportunities in the homeland often propel emigration, while lucrative opportunities in the host country tend to attract more immigrants. However, the United States has not always been able to offer ample desirable opportunities for all who were seeking them. There have been times in the history of the United States when immigrants (or, for that matter, even native-born Americans) had very restricted avenues for success due to economic recessions and high unemployment. Therefore, the lack of ample opportunities in the United States itself can be an impediment to immigrants' ability to attain the American Dream.

Data and Methods

    I have conducted 20 in-depth, qualitative interviews with Hungarian adults who have been living in the United States for at least two, but no more than 15 years. Ten of the interviews have been conducted with Hungarian women and ten with Hungarian men. I recruited my respondents by contacting the Hungarian Language Meetup Group in a Southeastern city, which at the time had 270 members. I sent a recruiting e-mail to the organizer of the group, who forwarded the e-mail to all members and encouraged members to volunteer for the interview. Respondents were recruited as individuals; no married couples were interviewed. I used a semi-structured format when I interviewed my respondents. The interviews were conducted at a place of the respondent's choice, which was their home in most cases. In a few cases, interviews were conducted in a coffee shop or fast food restaurant. 

    The interviews took place in two phases. Women were interviewed in spring 2008, while men were interviewed in the summer and early fall of 2009. On average, interviews lasted an hour (with a range of 40-110 minutes). I conducted the interviews in Hungarian and subsequently translated them to English. For confidentiality issues, any time I refer to my interviewees, I will use pseudonyms.  All the interviews were transcribed, and in the course of the data analysis they were coded line by line. The findings will demonstrate the results of qualitative data analysis. 

    Before turning to the findings I will put them in context by providing a brief demographic profile of my respondents in Table 1. The numbers in the table indicate how many of my respondents belong to each category (except in the case of "median age" and "median age at arrival"). 

Table 1
Demographics of Respondents

Median Age
Median Age at Arrival
Married to an American at the Time of Immigration
Married to an Hungarian at the Time of Immigration
Completed At Least Some College
Has At Least a Bachelor's Degree
Has an Advanced Degree
Has a Degree from U.S.
Works in a Professional Occupation
Works in Education or Clerical Occupation
At Home with Children
In U.S. for 2-5 Years
In U.S. for 7-15 Years


Land of Opportunity?

    The majority of immigrants to the United States arrive in search of better opportunities (Carmon 1996; Hochschild 1995; Lev Ari 2008; Lieberson 1996). This is also true for the Hungarians whom I interviewed. However, it is more dominant in the case of men than women. Four men (Norbert, Levente, András, and Janos) report that their chief reason for migration was to improve their financial situation. Szabolcs, László, and Ákos stress that they primarily opted for migration to advance their careers. While financial improvement was not first on the agenda of these three men, they explain that economic considerations have played a considerable role in their decisions to migrate. The rest of the men, notably Márton, Róbert, and Viktor initially came to the United States to study, but after graduating and receiving lucrative job offers, they all chose to stay. 

    The Hungarian women I interviewed were guided by financial and career-related aspirations less often than the men. Only Adrienn, Ágota, and Zsuzsa mention the hope of financial improvement or career advancement as the main reason for migration. Ivett and Brigitta had come to study and subsequently were offered gainful employment. Half of the women (Karola, Mariann, Bea, Réka, and Lilla) came to the United States to accompany their husbands, while none of the men chose immigration to accompany their wives. That is, while today female migrants are more likely than ever before to immigrate to the United States alone to pursue their own careers and improve their finances (Choy 2000; Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2003; Espiritu 2003; Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 2003; Mahler 2003; Menjivar 2003; Pessar 2003; Zentgraf 2002), half of my respondents, despite the fact that most of them are college graduates, still followed highly gender-specific motivations when they immigrated to the United States. Even so, since their arrival some of the women who originally followed their husbands have established careers in the United States and started to pursue their own versions of the American Dream.

    My respondents frequently draw on the narrative of the abundance of opportunities in the United States to explain what attracted them to this country. As Bea explains it, "I think here in the US you can be what you want to be, even without a degree, and you can earn all the money you want. As long as you work hard, you can achieve your goals." Her statement perfectly encapsulates the major tenets of the American Dream. 

    While Bea, and most of the other women refer to the American Dream at least to some extent, the men that I interviewed do so more frequently. For instance, as András explains what he expected from life in the United States, "I knew that if both spouses are working in a family then they can make a comfortable life for themselves, they can have a house, a car, nothing fancy, but a comfortable life. This is what I knew and what has attracted me." 

    Róbert originally came to the United States to pursue an advanced degree, then stayed when he was offered a job in his profession. As he describes it, "The US always had a certain attraction to me. I mean, it's the land of opportunity, and what not, so that really attracted me." Levente also praises the opportunities in the United States, "It's very easy to get ahead here. You get a chance here. I was very impressed by it that when I came here I got a job the first day I was looking. They gave me a chance." 

    Perceptions of the United States as a land of opportunity not only propelled many of my respondents toward immigration; they also motivated some who were originally planning on a temporary stay to settle down permanently. As Janos rationalizes it: 

When we came here we didn't plan on staying this long. Then we started to get to know the opportunities here and see what we can achieve by hard work. We started to see a fast and spectacular improvement in our finances. So, we started thinking about how we could stay longer.
László also recognized the abundance of opportunities in his profession in the United States, which has largely influenced his decision of long-term settlement. As he puts it, "I realized it pretty soon that we would stay long. Already during my residency I saw the difference between the opportunities here, both professionally and financially, and in Hungary. This is what motivated me to stay."

Comparisons Between Hungary and the United States

    Nearly all the Hungarians I interviewed compare living conditions in the United States to those in Hungary, and the bigger gap they experienced, the more laudatory they are of economic opportunities in the United States. Those who left Hungary shortly after the change of regimes around the early 1990s, in a period of economic downturn and high unemployment in Hungary express an especially strong belief in the American Dream, and in this sense, I did not find differences between my male versus female respondents. As Brigitta highlights: 

In '94 in Hungary there were a lot of things going on. Unemployment started to hit. There was really nothing in Hungary. Even if I was barely surviving here and learning English, versus going back to a dead-end job there, there was just no comparison.... I honestly do not believe I could be in Hungary where I am here. I just don't believe it.
    Viktor and Norbert were also discouraged by what they believed would be their future in Hungary. As Viktor highlights, "Just what I saw, everybody was working in a shitty job. . . . A lot of people were poor, and I didn't have any money when I was growing up. . . . Moving here helped me see that you just have to figure out what you want and you can make it happen." Norbert echoes this sentiment, "I saw the same people sitting on the same benches year after year, they were wearing the same clothes, just with more holes....  I don't think I could live this way, and this is something that might have happened to me too."

    The economy of Hungary has strengthened since the early 1990s, and Hungary has become a member of the European Union; therefore, the living conditions are not as grim as Brigitta, Viktor, Norbert, and a few other respondents remember them. Still, most of my respondents, both women and men, continue to draw parallels between the standard of living and opportunities in Hungary versus the United States, and Hungary still falls short in the comparison, which serves as a justification to stay in the United States indefinitely. For instance, Szabolcs, points out, "The condition of the Hungarian health care system is in is a shame. The health care system is declining because many good doctors are leaving the country or switching to a different profession because of the low salaries and grim conditions."
Róbert agrees: 

When I went home for reunions of my college class I saw that some people have left the profession. So, there is a likelihood that I might have left the profession too if I had stayed at home. It would have been hard to find a job. . . . I don't think I could have found  opportunities in  this field at home. 
    For some of the women I interviewed, the gap between opportunities in Hungary versus the United States has gained an additional dimension: in some cases it has contributed to a sense of emancipation and a higher level of perceived gender equality. As Brigitta explains it, "I wanted to be a working woman, a successful working woman, and that's what I am." She suggests that in the United States she has had to face fewer barriers to realizing this dream than she would have had to in Hungary. Mariann goes even further in her musings about what prospects she would have in Hungary: "I would've been an oppressed housewife, cooking stuffed cabbage." It has been mentioned that the ideology of the American Dream includes the endorsement of values such as freedom and independence, and it is important to underline that for immigrant women (including some of my respondents), the American Dream can also signify a possibility of elevated gender equality. 

    While some of my female respondents experience lucrative job opportunities and successful careers as liberating, a few others embrace being wives and mothers. While many women find these traditional roles confining, Karola, Réka, and Bea find it refreshing and liberating that they can afford this option. Bea, who lives in an upscale neighborhood, confides that "Here I can afford not to work and stay at home with my kids. . . . There are a lot of things you couldn't afford in a Hungarian family of the same size, with the same qualifications that you can here." Karola adds, "[In Hungary] probably I would've had to work full-time. If you work from 9-6, by the time you come home, it's time for the kids to go to bed. I think it'd be worse for us at home. We'd have to make compromises that probably we'll never have to make here." 

Achieving the Dream

    60% (12) of my respondents are homeowners and earn at least $40,000. Therefore, they surpass the average 20% of immigrants who achieve the American Dream (Clark 2003:64). Furthermore, almost all of my respondents who are not homeowners  have been in the United States for less than five years.  Those who are homeowners purchased their first house within less than 10 years of immigration; a few of them had become homeowners within five years of their arrival. These homeownership rates are high compared to other white immigrant groups because in general only about 30% become homeowners within 5-10 years of their arrival (Clark 2003:135). 

    It is not surprising that most of my respondents maintained a belief in the American Dream; after all, they have seen it fulfilled in their own lives. In my sample just as many women as men have achieved the American Dream in terms of income and homeownership. Slightly more of my male respondents than my female respondents are college graduates (eight versus seven), more have advanced degrees (six versus four), and more of them are professionals (six and three, respectively). The men in my study also have higher median ages and, on average, longer duration of stay in the United States than the women, which could also make it more likely to earn higher incomes and become homeowners (Clark 2003). 

    However, being married also boosts household income and homeownership rates (Clark 2003), and more women than men in my sample are married. Moreover, while the married Hungarian men in my study are all married to Hungarian women, and most of those women do not work, the women I interviewed all have husbands who are employed. Furthermore, several of them are married to native-born Americans whose income is likely to be higher than those of immigrants. Consequently, higher rates of marriage explain why the women in my study turned out to be just as likely to attain the American Dream as the men. However, this also means that more men than women in my sample have attained the American Dream on their own. 

    Discrimination based on race/ethnicity can turn out to be an obstacle to the attainment of the American Dream (Catanzarite 2000; England et al. 2004; Gordon 1964; Portes and Zhou 1993; Portes et al. 1980; Yinger 1985). Because Hungarian immigrants are white, they can enjoy privileges associated with being white in American society and avoid severe discrimination. When I asked my respondents whether they have encountered any discrimination, all claimed they have not, or only to a very minimal extent. 

    The United States also has to offer ample opportunities for success so that immigrants perceive that the American Dream is attainable. Most of my respondents arrived at times when the American economy was relatively strong (especially compared to the Hungarian economy); thus, they did not experience a lack of abundant opportunities upon arrival. However, since then, at the onset of the economic crisis of 2008, several of my respondents have experienced some effects of the downturn. For instance, Márton and András have found it more difficult lately to find a job than before. As Márton explains it, "My employer has to sponsor me for my visa, and employers aren't interested in doing that because at the current labor market they have enough applicants who don't need this sponsorship." András agrees, "In the last one and a half years I have kind of felt that those who weren't born here are kind of at a disadvantage. . . . It's clear that Americans will be the first to be hired, especially in this economy." 

    Despite a few negative experiences, the majority of my respondents maintain a belief in the American Dream even in the face of the economic downturn. As Janos points out, "I think we have a better life here than we did at home. We are doing fine, even in the middle of this economic crisis." Levente is even more optimistic and laudatory of the United States, "I really like this country. It's in an economic crisis now, but I still think it's easier to weather it here than anywhere else in the world." Levente's comment might explain why even the economic downturn might not disillusion most immigrants: opportunities in the United States might not be as vast as in other eras, but compared to one's homeland the United States will often still seem to be a land of (more) opportunities. 


    The 20 Hungarians I interviewed tend to express a firm belief in the American Dream. They report that they have been afforded better opportunities here than they would have had in Hungary, especially if they left during insecure economic times. I found that the women in my study refer to the American Dream less often than the men, which is mostly because they are less likely than the men to have come to the United States primarily in search of abundant career opportunities and improved financial trajectories. In fact, half of them followed their husbands, not their own career-related dreams to the United States. 

    Some of the women I interviewed have incorporated more gender-specific elements into their interpretation of the American Dream, such as the possibility of elevated gender equality or the ability to become stay-at-home mothers if they so choose. Future research should explore the effect of gender on how immigrants from countries with very high levels of gender inequality and those with the highest gender equality view opportunities for men and women in the United States. 

    While I found some differences between the reasons Hungarian men versus women in my sample decided to settle down in the United States, the women and the men in this study have been equally likely to attain the American Dream in terms of income and homeownership, which is predominantly due to the fact that more of the women than the men are married and live in two-income households. 

    My interviews with the 10 women were conducted in early 2008, therefore, they could not capture the potential impact of the economic and housing crisis on immigrants' perceptions of opportunities in the United States. Consequently, this study cannot make comparisons between how the economic downturn has affected male versus female immigrants. Future research should explore this question.

    As the interviews with the 10 men were conducted after the onset of the economic crisis, its effect on their perceptions of the American Dream could be more closely studied. The majority of my male respondents have preserved their belief in the American Dream, even in the face of the economic downturn. We can suspect that newcomers today might be more skeptical about the United States as the ultimate "land of opportunity" than those who arrived during a vibrant, prosperous period, however, it also depends on how harshly the crisis has struck their homelands. Future research should address this question by exploring new immigrants' perceptions of opportunities in the United States today, as well as examining how the views of some earlier immigrants on the American Dream might have shifted if they have recently lost their jobs and/or homes. 


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