Americans not so sure playing field is level, American dream attainable

Data from recent years suggests fewer Americans think they can get ahead:

Surveys continue to show that Americans, in large numbers, still believe in many of the tenets of the American dream. For example, majorities of Americans believe that hard work will lead to success. But, their belief in the American dream is wavering. Between 1986 and 2011, around 50 percent of those polled by Pew consistently said they felt that the American dream was “somewhat alive.” However, over that same time period, the share who said it was “very alive” decreased by about half, and the share that felt it was “not really alive” more than doubled…

The majority of Americans once thought the playing field was more or less level. No more. Back in 1998, a Gallup poll about equal opportunity found that 68 percent thought the economic system was basically fair, while only 29 percent thought it was basically unfair. In 2013, feelings about fairness had reversed: Only 44 percent thought the economic system was fair, while 50 percent had come to feel it was unfair. Another 2013 poll found that by an almost two-to-one margin (64 to 33 percent), Americans agreed that “the U.S. no longer offers an equal chance to get ahead.”

Perhaps as a result of all of this, there are signs that the very idea of the American dream is changing. The American dream has long been equated with moving up the class ladder and owning a home. But polling leading up to the 2012 election revealed something new—middle-class Americans expressed more concern about holding on to what they had than they were with getting more. Echoing these concerns, Pew reported in 2015 that when asked which they would prefer—financial security or moving up the income ladder—92 percent selected security. This is a seven percentage point increase since just 2011, when 85 percent selected security over economic mobility.

And while majorities of Americans continue to say that home ownership is a key part of the American dream in general, when a survey asked people which things were the most important to their personal American dream, only 26 percent selected “owning a nice home” as a top choice, while 37 percent chose “achieving financial security” and 36 percent chose “being debt free.” In a 2013 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll that asked respondents to define what it means to be middle class, 54 percent of respondents chose “having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt,” and only 43 percent defined being middle class as earning more, buying a home, and saving…

Three thoughts:

  1. Presumably, the economic crisis of the late 2000s contributed to this but so likely have other trends such as a declining amount of trust in social institutions and the decades-in-the-making changes brought about by economic globalization.
  2. Some have suggested that these numbers mean Americans no longer want these traditional markers of the American dream – like owning a home. More precisely, the surveys suggest Americans are more pessimistic about their own chances of owning a home. But, if the economy turned around (wages started going up, more good jobs became available, etc.), I suspect many Americans would go back to earlier behaviors. Maybe this would change if the pessimism and economic trouble continues. Yet, Americans have shown a willingness in the last century or so to consume at high levels when economic times are good.
  3. There has never truly been an “equal chance of getting ahead” in the United States. There have been times – such as after World War II – when prosperity was more broadly shared among the population and the gap between the rich and the poor shrank. Additionally, perceptions of this matter beyond the social realities. If people feel that social conditions are unequal, they can be unequal indeed.

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