Is the American dream alive? Examining Americans’ attitudes

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By Karlyn Bowman, Jennifer K. Marsico and  Heather Sims

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Key Points

  • Americans, by and large, believe that they can achieve their own version of the American Dream, and it is a personal vision. This view has changed little over the past 30 years. While a small group of skeptics exists, the average American believes that this is still a country of opportunity where personal success—material or otherwise—can be achieved with hard work and a little bit of ingenuity.
  • People think the challenges to achieving the dream are greater than in the past.
  • The key elements of the dream—an education for oneself and one’s children and freedom to live life on one’s own terms—still rank much higher in terms of priority than becoming wealthy.
  • Americans continue to be more confident about their own children’s prospects for achieving the American Dream than they are about the prospects of children overall.
  • In 1986, whites were more optimistic than nonwhites about the American Dream. Today, whites in some polls are less confident than blacks and Hispanics about being able to achieve selected aspects of the American Dream.

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Introduction

Nearly 30 years ago, in 1986, the Wall Street Journal commissioned the Roper Organization to conduct a poll on the American Dream. At the time, it was the most comprehensive poll on the idea. Questions had been asked in the past about upward mobility, expectations about the future, and attitudes toward homeownership, but there had been no systematic exploration of various components of the dream. It is worth quoting a portion of the introduction:

Changing economic realities in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with shifting social and cultural values, have caused many observers to wonder whether the underpinnings of The American Dream are eroding. Economists report that, in constant dollars, median household income peaked in 1973 and has actually declined since. Average weekly earnings were higher in 1962 than in 1985. And the cost of buying a home, a car, and sending one’s child to college have all increased faster than wages. From these and other statistics, many experts have concluded that The American Dream is becoming unattainable for an increasing number of middle class Americans. . . . Indeed, it has become the common wisdom in many circles that The American Dream is either dead or dying.1

It is not surprising given the mood described in this introduction that commentators would question the health of the American Dream. When you care deeply about the idea of being able to get ahead, of your children being able to do better than you have done, you worry about its passing. The Wall Street Journal’s exploration was designed to see how that pessimism was affecting views of the American Dream. They found the connection weak: “Most Americans, in fact, feel the American Dream is alive and well. Further, they are confident they’ll ultimately attain, or come close to attaining, their own American Dream.”2

Today, overall pessimism in America is especially deep, influenced by a weak economy. In a September 2014 CBS poll, just 27 percent felt the country was generally headed in the right direction. (In 1986, 43 percent said the country was on the right track, and 48 percent said the country was on the wrong track.) Responses to this popular polling question have been very negative since the 2008 crash. Wages are stagnant for many, and opportunity seems more limited than in the past. Has the current negative mood infected views about the American Dream? That is what we set out to study in this American Enterprise Institute Public Opinion Study.

At the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, we study public opinion on a variety of topics. We track current public opinion polls in the monthly AEI Political Report, but we also produce more detailed AEI Public Opinion Studies on individual topics and historical pollling trends.

We take no polls of our own. Instead, we rely on polls in the public domain from pollsters such as Gallup, the Pew Research Center, and ABC News and the Washington Post, to name a few. Many pollsters archive their data with the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut, and we draw on those polls for our studies. By examining different polls on a topic, we try to put media reports on new polls in broader historical context and compare pollsters’ results to get a true picture of public opinion.

For many years, we have wanted to publish an AEI Public Opinion Study on attitudes toward the American Dream. We have been eager to understand how Americans viewed it in the past and how they view it today. But there are significant challenges to getting a clear picture of public opinion on this idea. Many pollsters today are obsessed with following the news cycle and only occasionally update questions on topics such as the American Dream. The dearth of historical trend questions on the dream hinders a fuller understanding of how views of it have changed over the years.

Another obstacle to a comprehensive look at attitudes about the American Dream is shifting conceptions of the idea. Today, being able to finish college is part of the American Dream for most Americans. Not too many decades ago, people aspired to be able to finish high school. Another challenge is understanding how economic ups and downs affect views of the dream. At the time of the Wall Street Journal survey, pessimism did not seem to affect views of the dream significantly. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the strong economy lifted Americans’ spirits across the board. People felt better about the environment, for example, although there was no special evidence that environmental conditions had improved significantly. Americans were optimistic about their own prospects and their children’s.

Six years after the 2008 crash, with optimism about the country’s economy still weak, Americans are not as confident. A late July/early August 2014 Rutgers/Heldrich Work Trends poll found that 71 percent believed that the Great Recession had left us with a permanent change in normal economic conditions in the country. Twenty-nine percent said it had produced a temporary change from which the economy would recover. Today’s deep pessimism seems to have affected views of the dream. It is too early to know whether this is permanent.

This AEI Public Opinion Study is the most comprehensive collection of survey data from major pollsters on the topic, organized in sections that deal with various aspects of the dream. Each section includes commentary on the data.

Because many questions have not been asked regularly, we do not want to draw too many sweeping conclusions about the health of the American Dream. It is impossible to know if the deep pessimism in the nation today will affect views about the American Dream in the future.

Read the full study.

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