Americans are a resilient people. Despite five years of a down economy that seems to take one step back for every two going forward, they remain optimistic about their ability to “get ahead,” according to a new poll from Allstate Corp. and National Journal.
While optimistic, they have, however, lowered their expectations about just what it getting ahead means.
Nearly half (48%) of Americans say they have more opportunity to get ahead than their parents did, and 73% say they expect to reach financial security and comfort in their lifetimes.
Today, three in four Americans say getting ahead is harder than in the past, but an equal proportion have been able get ahead in their lifetime, according to the Heartland Monitor Poll.
“Americans continue to hold an aspirational view of their own ability to get ahead in the future and the ability of the country to rebound, but they believe that achieving their life goals is harder than it used to be and the path to those goals is more uncertain,” said Joan Walker, executive vice president of corporate relations for Allstate.
“At the same time, the economic and psychological impact of the Great Recession clearly continues as Americans are recalibrating the very definition of what getting ahead means and increasingly seeking stability and security over riskier chances for upward mobility.”
He added, “Managing through a protracted period of stagnant job growth and depressed wages, reducing personal debt and grappling with higher education costs are all significant components of the new social and economic paradigm for middle-class families.”
Key findings from the 14th Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll (PDF) include:
1) The overwhelming majority of Americans believe they live in the “land of opportunity,” and most believe they are living the American Dream. However, they are less certain about the opportunities the next generation will have.
- 86% agree that America is the “land of opportunity,” and 61% say they are living the American Dream.
- 72% of college graduates say they are living the American Dream, but only 46% of those with high school or less feel this way.
- Perceptions of “living the American Dream” increases with each higher income bracket, from 39% of those in households earning under $30k to 81% of those in $100k+ households.
- 48% of Americans say they have more opportunity to get ahead than their parents did, while 23% say they have less opportunity and 28% believe they have about the same opportunities.
- Consistent with previous Heartland Monitor Polls, African-Americans (75%) are far and away the most likely to believe they have more opportunity than their parents had.
- The biggest reason given by respondents when asked why they have had more opportunity than their parents is an improvement in education. 33% credit better schools, colleges and universities while others cite advances in technology and new opportunities in a changing economy.
- 32% of Americans believe the next generation will have more opportunities, 32% believe they will have less, and another 31% say they’ll have about the same amount of opportunity.
- 63% of African-Americans believe the next generation will have more opportunities, compared to just 25% of whites and 49% of Hispanics.
- Those who worry about today’s children having less opportunity cite poor government performance, rising national debt, and jobs going overseas as their biggest concerns. Those who are confident in the next generation’s opportunities say they’re encouraged by opportunities through better education and advancing technology.
2) Most Americans report having gotten ahead throughout their lives, and they are confident in their ability to do so in the future. But they also believe it is harder now than it has been in previous generations.
- 76% of Americans say they have been able to get ahead financially over the course of their lives.
- 66% of Americans, including 92% of African-Americans and 79% of Hispanics, say that they expect to get ahead over the next five-to-ten years.
- 75% of Americans believe that getting ahead is harder today than it has been in previous generations.
- Those who say that getting ahead is harder tend to attribute this change to “wages and income not keeping up with costs” (35%) and an uncertain economy (28%).
- 41% of Americans say their own skills and hard work play the biggest role in providing opportunity for them to get ahead and another 23% say their educational background plays the biggest role. These two personal attributes score higher in terms of opportunity potential than external factors like the state of the economy (18%), government policies (5%), income level (6%) and racial background (4%).
- More than half of Americans (53%) believe that anyone who works hard still has a chance to succeed and live a comfortable life in America today. A sizeable minority feels otherwise – 43% believe that today’s economy mostly rewards the rich and it’s difficult for average people to get ahead.
- 56% of those making under $30k per year believe today’s economy rewards the rich, but a majority in all higher income brackets takes the other side.
- 41% of Americans believe that a 4-year college or university provides a better opportunity to get ahead than either a technical/vocational education (27%) or on-the-job experience and training (24%). However, more than half of Americans (54%) believe a college education is an economic burden that is often too expensive and requires taking on debt.
3) More than half of Americans believe that the economic downturn has redefined what it means to “get ahead,” and nearly half expect the nation’s income gap to continue growing.
- 51% of Americans believe that the economic downturn has redefined what it means to “get ahead,” believing that success today is about holding a job, paying bills, avoiding debt, and saving a little for the future, rather than about steady increases in income, buying a home, or saving and investing more each year.
- Americans mostly see economic forces as the major obstacles to getting ahead:
- 79% – Companies sending jobs overseas
- 71% – Rising prices that make it harder to save and make investments
- 70% – The cost of college and graduate school education
- 65% – Competition for work from other countries
- 62% – Too many gains from economic growth are going to big companies and the richest Americans
- 61% – An education system that doesn’t provide enough skills
- 58% – Taxes and government regulations
- 44% – Americans don’t work as hard today as previous generations did
- 38% – Immigrants coming to this country and competing for jobs
- 34% – Unions aren’t as strong as they used to be
- 47% of Americans believe that the income gap between the wealthiest Americans and average Americans will continue to grow over the next four years. 33% believe it will stay about the same, and just 13% believe it will get smaller.
- Regarding government policies related to the economy, 39% believe that policies benefit mostly the wealthiest Americans, 17% believe they benefit the Middle Class, 12% believe they mostly benefit low-income Americans, and 24% believe they benefit all Americans.
4) Americans continue to grow slightly more optimistic about the direction of the country and they have a slightly more positive economic outlook.
- 35% of Americans now believe the country is headed in the right direction, the highest the Heartland Monitor Poll has tracked since September of 2009, when it hit 38%.
- 45% expect their personal financial situation to improve by this time next year, the highest percentage measured in the history of the Heartland Monitor Poll.
- 57% believe the economy will improve over the next 12 months, a slight dip from the Heartland Monitor Poll’s earlier 2012 numbers but 7 points higher than measured in October of 2011.
- 49% of Americans approve of the job President Obama is doing, while 45% disapprove. These numbers are more positive for the president than the poll measured in May 2012, but his approval rating has still held between 44% and 51% for 11 straight Heartland Monitor polls.
- In the race for president, Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney among likely voters by a margin of 50% to 43%. Obama leads by 8 points among Independents and by 14 points among women. Romney leads by 13 among seniors and takes 51% of the white vote.
- Is the pre-recession economy gone for good?
- Two out of three Americans used social media last month, but they don’t trust it
- Outcome of Presidential election could affect holiday spending
- Job-growth has negative effects in some metro areas
- Americans know they’re tracked and uncomfortable about it
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