That is the crux of the American psyche: that people who work hard get ahead.
As part of our research for our September trend report, “American Dream in the Balance,” we spoke with Erin Currier at the Pew Center on the States. As the lead on Pew’s ongoing research into the status of the American Dream, Currier works with top experts in the field and oversees the project team on its research agenda. Pew’s aim is to build broad, nonpartisan agreement on the facts related to economic mobility and to spark debate on how to improve opportunity in America. Currier discussed Americans’ perceptions of opportunity and economic mobility, how they feel about income inequality and whether Americans are optimistic about the Dream overall.
How does economic mobility factor in today’s American Dream?
One of the most popular definitions Americans use to describe the American Dream is their children being better off than they are. And that is inherently what we are looking at when we study economic mobility. It is how people are moving up and down the income ladder, over their life, and then across generations. So the way we are measuring people’s opportunity is also the way we know Americans are defining the American Dream, in large part.
What do people envision when they say they want a better life for their children?
The most popular answer was basically being free to accomplish anything you want, with hard work. That, I think, is the crux of the American psyche: that people who work hard get ahead. And then the second one was your children being better off financially than you—so that word “financial” was in there. Definitely people think of that, both in terms of income and wealth.
Other definitions that are really common have been a college degree, owning a house, being financially secure. The other one really high up there is being able to succeed regardless of the economic circumstances in which you were born. There is really this belief that the circumstances of your birth in the United States should not and do not determine your future outcome, that we are exceptional, in the United States, in terms of our ability to push people up the income distribution—if they work hard, if they play by the rules.
It seems that Americans have this idea that there is a set of things that go along with being financially secure, and that includes your own home, that includes a family, being in a safe neighborhood. People [in Pew’s focus groups] talked a lot about having access to green space and there being a sense of community. All of these things are wrapped up in what we anticipate or believe is the American Dream.
How do Americans feel about the future of the American Dream?
Both in 2009 and in 2011, we were pretty blown away by people’s optimism around these questions. For the most part Americans are really, really optimistic. They say they are in control of their personal finances, that things like the economy are only somewhat important to their ability to be financially secure, that they will earn enough money to live the kind of life they want, that 10 years from now their economic situation will be better than it is now. Americans are very forward thinking and very optimistic, both about the health and status of the American Dream and also their ability to be a part of it.
Definitely we see a downward trend in terms of people’s perceptions of how alive the American Dream is. The thing that is amazing, though, is that still leaves 70 percent of the people saying that the American Dream is very much or somewhat alive. Even though that is the lowest that it has been historically, it is still pretty impressive optimism.
Because Americans are so convinced that personal attributes are the biggest influencers of their economic mobility—whether they work hard, whether they are ambitious, whether they do the things they need to do—they are very confident those efforts will have their just rewards.
How does this break down by generation?
Millennials are by far the most optimistic about their ability to achieve the American Dream at some point in their lifetime: 69 percent of them say they will reach the American Dream compared to 26 perent of Baby Boomers. It could be because, looking at the question, they are thinking, “Well, I have 40 years of work in front of me, of course I am going to be able to achieve it at some point,” whereas Baby Boomers are on their way out of the labor market, so their perspective might be different. On the other hand, when we asked if you have already achieved the American Dream, only 14 percent of Millennials say they have, compared to 39 percent of Baby Boomers and 55 percent of the Silent Generation, which are those born in 1912 to 1945.
How does rising income inequality impact perceptions of the American Dream?
Adults today really do feel they have more disposable income, more economic security than their parents did at the same age. At the same time, when we look at relative mobility, which is where people fall on the income distribution as a whole, that is where there is more reason for concern. The data show that people who start at the bottom tend to remain stuck at the bottom over generations, and similarly, people who start at the top tend to remain at the top. So for those who are at the bottom, even if they have more money than their parents did, they are still at the bottom of the pile, and that really belies this notion of equality of opportunity. I don’t think, though, that most Americans have a sense of where they fall on the income distribution.
The data very clearly show that economic mobility in the relative sense leaves something to be desired, but it is very hard for Americans to feel that and to have a sense of where they are, in a relative sense. What we found—granted, this was before Occupy Wall Street, before lots of other things hit the news cycle—was that Americans were much, much more interested in promoting opportunity than they were in reducing inequality. People are pretty convinced that people who are poor or having a hard time and struggling, for the most part, maybe they made choices that put them there. There is a lot of assumption that if you are working hard enough, then your economic situation will take care of itself.
What role do Americans feel the government should play in helping them to achieve the Dream?
What we found is that on more than 80 percent say the government should be involved in one way or the other. And that cuts across party lines, so people who identified as being Republican versus Independent versus Democrat, the majority of every party said yes, the government has a role to play. Fifty percent said, “The government should be doing more”; 17 percent said they should be doing less.
The other question that we asked was whether the government was currently doing more to hurt or to help people move up the economic ladder. In 2009 we found that 46 percent said the government was currently doing more to hurt people’s movement up the economic ladder, and that shifted a little bit against the government in 2011, where 52 percent said the government does more to hurt.
But then in 2011 we asked why—“Is it because they are doing the right policies but they are ineffective, or they are pursuing the wrong policies”—and people were pretty split. So 43 percent say they are pursuing the right policies but they are just ineffective at carrying them out; 37 percent say government just pursues the wrong policies altogether. And only 12 percent said the government is pursuing the right policies and doing a good job.
Since the American Dream is such an individual thing, government’s role seems tricky here?
It does seem like the American Dream itself is such a personal thing, and different people are going to define it in different ways, so if you define it as having a safe house with a fence and a partner and kids, I don’t think there are very many people who are going to say, “Yeah, the government should be helping me find a spouse.” Whereas if you say, “Does the government have a role to play in making sure that people have equality of opportunity and that a poor kid who works hard can get ahead,” pretty unanimously Americans are going to say, “Absolutely.” Our polling would suggest that yes, people want a level playing field.
What is the lifestyle people most closely associate with the American Dream?
It is about lifestyle I suppose, but it is more about financial security and economic security. What people described in the focus groups is they have enough money to pay their bills and have a bit left over that they can put into savings. It is like, you can sleep well at night because you are providing for your family and you are able to live within your means. The trappings of economic security are owning your own home, having a college education, your kids being on a path to do even better than you.
Where does American exceptionalism fit into all of this?
There is probably quite a bit of evidence, from policymaker speeches alone, that we as Americans have this idea, this perception in our minds that the United States has better mobility than anyone else. And in reality we have worse mobility than everyone else, save for the U.K.