The new poll, the 14th in the series, explores American attitudes toward the possibilities of, and barriers to, upward mobility. Social scientists have long noted that Americans are more likely than Europeans to “believe that where individuals end up in the economic game—who wins and who loses—is the result of hard work and ingenuity” rather than family connections or circumstances at birth, as Isabel Sawhill, codirector of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently.
The reality, in fact, is more ambiguous. International comparisons have found that young people born on the lowest rungs of the income ladder have a better chance of rising to the top in several European countries than in the United States. “The hard truth,” Sawhill wrote, “is that the U.S. has less opportunity than the public believes and less than in some other advanced countries.”
The new Heartland Monitor Poll demonstrates both how deeply Americans believe the country offers opportunity to all those who will work hard for it—and the cracks that are emerging in that foundation after four years of economic turbulence unmatched since the Great Depression.
On the most basic question, a resounding 86 percent of those polled agreed that “America is ‘the land of opportunity.’ ” Three-fifths say they are living the American Dream, defined “as the opportunity to go as far as your talents and hard work will take you and to live better than your parents.” (Despite years of disappointing growth, that figure is unchanged since July 2009.) Three-fourths of those polled say they also expect to eventually earn enough to become “financially comfortable and secure.” More narrowly, 53 percent agreed that “anyone who works hard still has a fair chance to succeed and live a comfortable life in today’s America,” while 43 percent took the contrasting view that “today’s economy mostly rewards the rich, and it’s difficult for average people to get ahead.” That’s also unchanged since July 2009.
Most Americans, as in earlier generations, still see themselves as captains of their fate. Asked what plays the greatest role in determining whether they will succeed, about two-thirds picked either their own skills and hard work or their educational background; less than one in five said the key factor was the economy’s overall state. Only about one in 20 pinned the most responsibility on either government policies or their ethnic and racial background.
Johnathan St. Aubin, 27, of Toledo, Ohio, who responded to the poll, embodies the almost feral will that crackles through those numbers. “If you want anything bad enough, you can do it,” he says. “I just feel like it doesn’t matter who’s in office. It doesn’t change my plans: go to school and get a job. The more you’re willing to work, the more you stay away from TV and trying to buy new things that will have something to do with it, too. The whole economy thing—it’s just a mood. If you’re going to succeed, you’re going to succeed.”
More than most, St. Aubin has lived those beliefs. Raised with few resources (“When I was growing up we didn’t have Christmas,” he says), he left home at 17 and got a job by telling his employer he was a year older than he really was. He worked long hours mounting and disassembling trade shows for appliances and tools that were held on dirt floors; now he’s studying at a community college to become an accountant. “I believe I’m more in control [of what happens to me] than who’s the president,” he says. “I take more personal responsibility for how my life turns out than who’s in office.”
If St. Aubin exemplifies the up-by-your-bootstraps convictions that lace through American history, other responses show doubts about whether those longtime rules still apply. Like two earlier Heartland Monitor surveys, this poll records an equivocal verdict when Americans are asked to compare their opportunities to earlier generations: 48 percent say they have more opportunities than their parents did at the same age, but a greater number combined say they either have the same opportunities (28 percent) or fewer (23 percent). Whites (at 44 percent) are considerably less likely than minorities (at 61 percent) to say they have more opportunities than their parents did. And a preponderant three-fourths of respondents say they believe that for most people today, getting ahead is harder than it was for earlier generations; that verdict transcended racial, educational, and income lines.
Large clouds also creep into questions about the opportunities available to the next generation. A solid three-fifths of those polled (and, again, slightly more minorities than whites) say that children from all races today “have adequate opportunities to be successful.” But respondents are much more closely divided on the question of whether children from all income groups have adequate opportunities for success: 49 percent say yes, and 48 percent say no. (Once again, whites are less likely than minorities to say yes.) Kristy, a respondent from Lynchburg, Va., who refused to give her last name, says that when she returned to college as an older student, she could see the enormous strains on young people with limited resources trying to balance work and studies. “The economy I don’t think allows for anyone who isn’t from the high middle-class to succeed easily,” she says.