Americans No Longer Believe in the American Dream
Most no longer believe it's possible to get ahead through hard work.
WSJ (“Voters See American Dream Slipping Out of Reach, WSJ/NORC Poll Shows“):
The American dream—the proposition that anyone who works hard can get ahead, regardless of their background—has slipped out of reach in the minds of many Americans.
Only 36% of voters in a new Wall Street Journal/NORC survey said the American dream still holds true, substantially fewer than the 53% who said so in 2012 and 48% in 2016 in similar surveys of adults by another pollster. When a Wall Street Journal poll last year asked whether people who work hard were likely to get ahead in this country, some 68% said yes—nearly twice the share as in the new poll.
Now, it’s worth noting at the outside that comparing the answers to somewhat related questions in different polls is fraught. Still, the overall finding is interesting.
The survey offers the latest evidence that Americans across the political spectrum are feeling economically fragile and uncertain that the ladder to higher living standards remains sturdy, even amid many signs of economic and social progress.
Half of voters in the new poll said that life in America is worse than it was 50 years ago, compared with 30% who said it had gotten better. Asked if they believed that the economic and political system are “stacked against people like me,” half agreed with the statement, while 39% disagreed.
That there is no meaningful way that life hasn’t improved—even for straight, white, middle-class men, much less more historically disadvantaged demographics—seems not to factor into this. Which is especially baffling considering how much smaller that demographic is today. One might think that women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, etc. would immediately recognize their improved status, no?
The American dream seemed most remote to young adults and women in the survey. Some 46% of men but only 28% of women said the ideal of advancement for hard work still holds true, as did 48% of voters age 65 or older but only about 28% of those under age 50.
People in both political parties reported a sense of precariousness and disaffection.
This is, of course, interspersed with anecdotal quotations that may be wildly unrepresentative but are supposed to explain the results:
Oakley Graham, a stay-at-home father in Greenwood, Mo., outside Kansas City, said that by some measures he was living the American dream. And yet, he feels insecure.
We have a nice house in the suburbs, and we have a two-car garage,” said Graham, who is 30 years old and whose wife is an electrical engineer. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that money was tight.” For him and most of his neighbors, “no matter how good it looks on the outside, I feel we are all a couple of paychecks away from being on the street.”
Graham, who leans Democratic in his politics and voted for President Biden, said life is “objectively worse” than 50 years ago, in part because labor unions are no longer as strong and capable of helping as many workers. He said his grandfather, a maintenance crew worker for railroads, retired on a union pension, something that most people don’t have now.
Of course, Graham’s grandfather would have been socially ostracized for being a stay-at-home dad. And a 1972 woman would have been considered some sort of trailblazer for being an electrical engineer—a job that almost certainly wouldn’t have been unionized.
On the other hand, yes, money is “tight” these days if you choose to have only one earner in the household—something that was the norm fifty years ago—but live our modern life of conspicuous consumption. (One imagines both their garages have cars parked in them, unless they’re filled with so much excess crap that the cars have to remain outside.)
John Lasher, a Donald Trump supporter in Springfield, Mo., feels the American dream “is past tense.” In prior decades, “if you showed up for work and you did your job well and you tried to help out, you were rewarded,” said Lasher, 78, a retired electrical inspector for aircraft carriers and submarines. Now, he said, it isn’t as uniformly true as in the past.
Lasher blames Democratic policies for the change. Rising prices, which he blames on the Biden administration, are robbing people of the American dream, he said. “With inflation, you’re working hard just to make ends meet, and then any extra work that you put in is just trying to get so you’re not in the hole,” he said.
I have no way of comparing 1973 and 2023 in terms of vague metrics like the degree to which workers were rewarded for trying to help out but suspect very little has changed in that regard. For that matter, I’m not sure why a 78-year-old retiree would have any particular insight into that.
The new survey adds to signs of pessimism found in other recent polls. An NBC News survey released this month found that 19% felt confident that life for their children’s generation would be better than for the current one—a record low in the group’s surveys dating to 1990.
While those and other questions tend to ask Americans about broad changes over time, one finding from the Journal/NORC poll found a decline in pessimism about the current economy. Some 35% of voters said they rated the economy as excellent or good, an improvement from the 20% who said so in March and 17% in May of last year. The share rating the economy as “not so good” or poor fell to 65%, compared with 80% or more in the prior two surveys.
Of course, this is still a pessimistic group. We still have nearly double holding negative versus positive views.
Diana Walker, 62, who lives in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur and leans Democratic, thinks the American dream has faded. Now retired, she was satisfied with her career with a major delivery-service company.
“But to listen to my kids talk, how hard they have to work for what they need in life, how they feel that they have not been rewarded or they’re just a number, that they can be replaced at any time—I don’t know,” she said, adding: “It was better for me.” One of her grown children manages a fast-food restaurant; one works in maintenance and a third works for a large communications company.
Again, I’m not sure that it was ever the case that folks working in relatively low-level jobs in the service economy were financially secure, much less enjoyed considerable job satisfaction and social prestige. It may simply be that younger generations have higher expectations for those things.
Walker also believes the economic and political systems aren’t set up for her family to succeed. “I’m African-American, and the odds are always against Black people,” she said. Minority groups, she said, have a hard time getting mortgages and often don’t get fair market value for their homes.
Large shares of other Black respondents in the Journal survey, which was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, said that the nation’s economic and political systems were rigged against them—some 68% said so, compared with about half of Latino and white voters.
This finding, on the other hand, is consistent with reality. But, again, Blacks almost surely have it easier socially and economically in 2023 than they did in 1973.
Among all respondents, 18% said the American dream never held true, a far larger share than the single-digit shares recorded in similar past surveys by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute.
The PRRI polls were conducted by telephone, while the Journal-NORC poll surveys people who belong to NORC’s random-sample panel. But the diminished faith in the American dream recorded in the new survey is so large that the differing polling methods can’t account for the change, said Juan Carlos Donoso, a NORC researcher who worked on the new poll.
Given that the results seem to cross partisan and demographic barriers, I don’t think this is a function of the Fox News effect. But it may be a result of the larger phenomenon of our political and information polarization. We’ve been in what I refer to as the “permanent campaign” for roughly 30 years now. The nature of that it to constantly emphasize the negative. While they do it very differently, Democratic and Republican leaders alike intentionally cultivate dissatisfaction with our political and economic institutions, casting them as unfair. It’s not surprising that people believe them.