The road still rises. But the climb is steeper, and the falls are more frequent.
That’s the view of prospects for upward mobility in the modern American economy that emerges from the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll. Although an overwhelming majority of Americans still define the U.S. as “the land of opportunity,” nearly as many agree that getting ahead is more difficult for workers today than it was for previous generations. Only about one in five Americans say they have been able to get ahead consistently in their lives; many more say they have moved forward somewhat but faced intermittent reversals. And while a plurality of adults believe they have more opportunity to advance than their parents did, Americans are much more uncertain that the next generation will have greater opportunities than their own—with whites far more pessimistic than minorities.
In all these ways, the survey captures systemic strain between the bedrock American belief that anyone who works hard enough can succeed and the uneasy sense that persistent, and perplexing, headwinds in a globalized economy are making it harder for workers to get ahead. It suggests that new realities are compelling the public to reexamine old assumptions about achievement from several angles, including the value of a college education and the definition of success. In one striking finding that reflects the years of economic uncertainty punctuated by high unemployment and foreclosure rates, a slim majority of Americans now say they define getting ahead as not falling behind—not losing ground or falling into debt—rather than the more traditional definition of enjoying steady increases in pay and income. “The global economy has changed so much that I think holding on is going to be the reality in the future,” says Vada Martin, a service-sector worker from Bedford, Pa., who responded to the survey. “There is so much competition [in the world], it’s going to be harder to maintain the lifestyle we’ve been accustomed to.”
Amid these profound concerns, more-immediate assessments of the economy’s trajectory show little change from the most recent Heartland Monitor Poll conducted in May. Compared to then, the share of Americans who say that the country is on the right track has ticked up only slightly, while the percentage who believe that their personal financial situation will improve over the next year remains virtually unchanged, and the number who believe that the overall economy will brighten has actually declined slightly. Even so, the survey shows President Obama opening a solid 50 percent to 43 percent advantage over Republican nominee Mitt Romney among likely voters, in part because significantly more voters believe Obama will advance policies that benefit all Americans.
What’s clear in the poll, though, is that many Americans feel the economy is experiencing fundamental changes beyond the reach of any president to reshape quickly, or perhaps at all. Although some respondents said they believed that the 2012 election would determine the level of opportunity available for future generations, many others said that the nation’s economic trials reflect problems that have accumulated over time and are unlikely to be resolved soon. When asked to identify the barriers to getting ahead, more respondents picked the decisions by American companies to relocate jobs overseas than any other option.
Those sentiments help explain why the famous Ronald Reagan question that Republicans highlighted at their national convention in Tampa last month—Are you better off than you were four years ago?—may not be as politically effective as in earlier years. In the poll, likely voters split almost exactly in thirds between those who say they are better off than four years ago, worse off, and unchanged. Obama, however, not only holds a preponderant lead among those who say they are better off but also among those who say their finances are unchanged since 2008—his advantage among the latter is 3-to-2. Only among those who say they are worse off does Romney lead. “I came out of a blue-collar world; the way I came up, it doesn’t exist anymore,” says Maria Shaw, a child-welfare worker from Champaign Ill., who was laid off from her job recently but is supporting Obama. “I recognize that when you’re in a difficult position, you’re not going to dig out of it right away.”
OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL?
The Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor polls explore the ways that Americans are navigating the changing economy. The latest poll, conducted by Ed Reilly and Jeremy Ruch from the Strategic Communications practice of FTI Consulting, surveyed 1,000 adults for the entire questionnaire by landline telephone and cell phone from Sept. 15 to 19. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. In addition, the poll surveyed another 250 adults to generate a sample of 1,055 likely voters for politically oriented questions; the margin of error for that sample is 3 percentage points.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the September 29, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.