Americans still believe they can reach for the stars, but they are increasingly fearful they are standing on a trapdoor as they try.
That’s the deeply ambivalent message from the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll exploring the public’s perception of what it means to be middle class in America today. Fully 56 percent of those surveyed said they believe they will eventually climb to a higher rung on the economic ladder than they occupy now. But even more said they worry about falling into a lower economic class sometime in the next few years. Reaffirming the results in earlier Heartland Monitor polls, most of those surveyed said the middle class today enjoys less opportunity, job security, and disposable income than earlier generations did. And strikingly small percentages of American adults said they consider it “very realistic” that they can meet such basic financial goals as paying for their children’s college, retiring comfortably, or saving “enough money to … deal with a health emergency or job loss.”
In all, the survey suggests that after years of economic turmoil, most families now believe the most valuable—and elusive—possession in American life isn’t any tangible acquisition, such as a house or a car, but rather economic security. Asked to define what it means to be middle class, a solid 54 percent majority of respondents picked “having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt”; a smaller percentage defined it in terms of getting ahead and accumulating savings. “It seems like that class of the people just live from paycheck to paycheck,” said Dale High, a trucker from near Idaho Falls, Idaho, who responded to the poll. “Everything is going up, but wages are staying the same. And people can’t live like that.”
The backdrop for these sober assessments is a darkening of the national mood since President Obama won reelection. The share of Americans who say the country is on the right track reached a four-year high of 41 percent in the Heartland Monitor survey conducted just after his victory in November. But that optimism plummeted in the latest survey to less than three in 10. The number of people who expect the economy to improve over the next year also skidded.
Obama’s approval rating dipped as well. Last November, it reached 54 percent, the highest level in a Heartland Monitor survey since summer 2009. In the new survey, slightly more adults said they disapproved than approved of his performance. Congress fared far worse. And when respondents were asked whether key institutions or individuals, from Obama and Congress to big-business leaders, were making life better or worse for the middle class, only local business owners attracted a broadly positive assessment.
The poll reaffirms Americans’ enduring confidence that they can better their own circumstances. But the results highlight how much economic anxiety and political alienation still shadow daily life, even after the blackest clouds of the Great Recession have lifted.
Essayist Garrison Keillor defines his fictional Lake Wobegon as a place where all the children are above average. The new poll found that Americans take almost the opposite tack in their self-descriptions, with most placing themselves at the center of the economic ladder. Asked to define their class status on a 5-point scale, just 2 percent identified themselves as upper class and 12 percent as upper-middle class. More respondents placed themselves below the middle: 12 percent said they were lower class, and 26 percent called themselves lower-middle class. By far the largest group—46 percent—self-identified as middle class.
The sense of belonging to the middle class transcended many objective economic boundaries. Racial differences were relatively muted, with 50 percent of African-Americans, 47 percent of whites, and 39 percent of Hispanics calling themselves middle class. As survey supervisors Jeremy Ruch and Brent McGoldrick note, a plurality of respondents in every educational grouping said they were middle class. So did almost two-thirds of households earning between $50,000 and $100,000. Among households earning $30,000 to $50,000 and among those over $100,000, the share that identified as middle class—just under 45 percent—was almost exactly the same.
Some distinctions emerged when respondents were asked to compare their economic class with that of their parents at the same age. The results showed upward mobility in America in a mixed light at best: 35 percent ranked themselves higher than their parents, 31 percent in the same class, and 29 percent in a lower class. These findings revealed large variations by race and education. Among Hispanics, more respondents said they’d risen above their parents’ station than said they had slipped (47 percent to 22 percent). Responses were similar for African-Americans (33 percent to 22 percent) and college-educated whites (38 percent to 35 percent). But among whites without college degrees, more said they had lost ground (36 percent) rather than gained it (29 percent).
Expectations about children diverged along similar lines. As in earlier Heartland Monitor surveys, members of minority groups expressed more optimism about their children’s prospects than whites did. While 56 percent of nonwhite respondents said they expected their children to reach the upper class or upper-middle class, just 38 percent of whites agreed. Whites were twice as likely as minorities to say their children would settle in the lower class or lower-middle class and slightly more likely to predict they would reach the middle class. These somber sentiments, as in the earlier Heartland surveys, differed surprisingly little between whites with and without four-year college degrees.
In fact, numerous economic studies show that the children of white parents, particularly those with advanced education, are far more likely than young minorities to reach the top rungs of the economic ladder. But this survey reconfirms earlier Heartland results that suggest minorities are more likely than whites to expect opportunity for their children, because they are more likely to see their own lives as examples of generational progress. Two-thirds of Hispanics and half of African-Americans placed their parents in the lower class or lower-middle class at their age, compared with about one-third of whites.
In this poll, as in earlier surveys, whites were much more likely to express fears that opportunity for young people has already peaked, even for those with a college degree. “I feel sorry for my kids—they’re just getting out of college—because they have nothing to look forward to,” said Tim Cooper, a logistical equipment salesman who lives in the Chicago suburbs. “They’re not going to have the ability in the near future to buy a home. There are thousands of people who are going to be stuck with their student loans.”
ON A TIGHTROPE
People who responded to the Allstate/National Journal poll reported a substantial amount of economic churning in their own lives—showing, again, a close balance between upward and downward mobility in American life. Exactly 30 percent of those surveyed reported they had risen from a lower economic class, and 27 percent said they had slipped down from a higher class. Forty-three percent had seen no movement at all.
Looking into the future, the poll found a mix of optimism and anxiety, filigreed with fascinating contrasts of race and class. Overall, 56 percent of those surveyed said they thought it very or somewhat likely they would reach “a higher class at some point” in their lives. Just 42 percent thought it unlikely they would climb. Optimism is even more common among Americans of working age; more than four-fifths of adults under 30, more than two-thirds of those in their 30s, and just over three-fifths of people in their 40s think they will rise, compared to much smaller proportions of seniors and workers soon to retire.
But once again, the racial divide was substantial. Almost three-fourths of minorities said they considered it likely they would rise; whites, though, split exactly in half, with little difference between those with or without a college degree.
This resilient optimism about rising was matched by a widespread fear of falling. Fully 59 percent of respondents voiced concern “about falling out of [their] current economic class over the next few years,” including 28 percent who were “very” concerned. Only 40 percent said they weren’t concerned about losing ground. Veronica Tovar, a food-service worker in Los Angeles, said she “absolutely” worries about slipping. “Here, you used to work 40 hours a week and you had enough to pay your rent, your utilities, your car,” she said. “And you could even spend some money to go eat out two or three times a week. And that kept the money moving around…. It’s not that way now. Now you only buy what you need.”
This result also produced some variation by race (64 percent of minorities expressed anxiety, compared with 57 percent of whites), but the bigger fissure fell along educational lines. Among Americans without a college degree, nearly twice as many feared falling as did not; respondents with a degree divided exactly in half. The fears grew with age. Half of adults under 40 expressed some fear of falling, soaring to 72 percent among those in their 40s and 65 percent in their 50s. A stunning 76 percent of over-40 workers without a college degree expressed fear of losing ground, including 45 percent who said they were “very concerned.”
The results suggest that Americans’ mood is teetering. One-fourth of respondents are consistently optimistic; they expect to rise and aren’t worried about falling. Roughly an equal share of people are consistently pessimistic—concerned about falling and not expecting to rise. Another one-sixth expect stasis: They doubt they will either rise or fall. That leaves one-third who believe they are living on a tightrope: They consider it likely they will rise but also worry they will slip instead.
NOT ONLY FEAR ITSELF
Not surprisingly, when asked what would put them at the greatest risk of falling into a lower economic class, respondents most often mentioned losing their job or other source of income (52 percent). Another 25 percent cited an unexpected illness or injury—a measure of continuing anxiety about meeting the costs of health care.
This fear of losing ground is rooted in the conviction that, in the past few years, downward mobility has become much more common than upward movement. Asked whether more Americans recently had “earned or worked their way into the middle class” or had “fallen out of the middle class because of the economy,” almost eight times as many respondents took the bleaker view.
Myesha Carter, a speech pathologist in Washington, has weathered the storm herself, but she has watched her mother, brother, and boyfriend all struggle to find steady employment in recent years. “Because of the downturn, I know too many individuals who are in the hole—and just trying to survive,” she said. “A lot of people lost financial security over the past decade and are just starting from the ground and having to rebuild.”
The survey also captured a grim view of generational change in middle-class life. Respondents were twice as likely to say the middle class has less, rather than more, opportunity to get ahead today than in their parents’ generation. They were three times more likely to say today’s middle class has less, rather than more, expendable income after paying for expenses. And they were four times as likely to say today’s middle class has less, rather than more, job security than the previous generation. Pessimism was again especially intense among those in their 40s and 50s. And whites offered a particularly dreary assessment on all three measures; in their responses on job security, pessimistic assessments outnumbered optimistic ones by more than 5-to-1, a disparity far greater than among minorities.
This widespread sense of slippage may help explain the premium on economic security that showed up in the survey again and again. In one question, asked about the best indicator of membership in the middle class, many more people identified measures of stability than signs of getting ahead. A plurality of 38 percent picked as the best indicator “having long-term financial security by staying out of debt, balancing spending with income, and saving for the future,” and 34 percent named the ability to afford basics “like a house and a car and education for yourself or your dependents.” Just 21 percent picked “being able to afford nonnecessities like dining out, leisure activities, and annual family vacations.” These proportions held across demographic groups and also for the nearly half who identified themselves as middle class.
Presented a more focused choice, almost three-fourths of those polled said “having a secure and reliable income, benefits, and safety net” that allowed them to live “without the risk of facing severe financial hardship” was more important than being able to buy nice things.
Security trumped advancement again in a final question that required a choice between two definitions of what it means to be middle class today. Just 43 percent picked the definition that articulated the traditional American Dream of gaining ground through life (“having the opportunity for financial and professional growth, buying a home, and saving and investing for the future”). A solid 54 percent majority picked a definition that revolved less around getting ahead than about not sliding back (“having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt”). Once again, the results were the same for those who self-identified as the middle class and the sample as a whole.
“I think the middle class has become a treading-water position,” said Loren Cowdery, a graduate student who delivers pizzas in Bellingham, Wash. “I think, ideally, it would be where they are always trying to move up. But I think those opportunities have been stifled in the past 20 or 30 years.”
In every age group, more respondents picked the definition that focused on not falling behind (with the sentiment strongest, once again, among those in their 40s). So did more of those in every income category up to $100,000 a year; those with higher incomes leaned strongly to the traditional definition of upward mobility. Minorities split almost in half, as did college-educated whites. But in a stark measure of their sense of economic vulnerability, fully 60 percent of whites without a college degree defined their focus as not falling behind.
“VALUES HAVE CHANGED”
The survey also probed what Americans believe are the most important actions they could take as individuals to avoid sliding down the class ladder as well as the best strategy for society as a whole to follow to enlarge the middle class. The personal answers revolved around fiscal prudence. One-third of those surveyed said the most important thing they could do to ensure they would not drop into a lower class was to focus on “spending wisely and saving and investing for the future”; another 22 percent cited “paying off debt and not taking on new debt” as most important.
Those results hint at a moralistic strain in public thinking that attributes part of the squeeze on average families today to inflated expectations and insufficient personal discipline, especially compared with previous generations. “I think [people] spend a lot more money on going out to dine than our parents’ generation did when they were our age,” said James Johnson, a small-business owner in Roseau, Minn. “They probably borrow to have luxury items, toys, things they don’t necessarily need. I think the values have changed.” Bill from Birmingham, Ala., who works in investments for an insurance company (and declined to give his last name), wasn’t alone in decrying Americans’ lack of financial understanding in recent years. “We do know how to make a paycheck. We unfortunately don’t know what to do with one once we’ve made it,” he said.
Respondents deemed other options for personal action less important: 14 percent picked continuing to work hard, an equal number identified “gaining new skills and education,” and 12 percent spoke of “improving or maintaining your health.” A quarter of minority respondents focused on bolstering their education, compared with only a tenth of whites.
Another question offered a different set of choices for the broad social strategies that would best help people stay in or reach the middle class. Half said the best approach would be to help people attain “a higher level of education”; only 30 percent said the key was for people to work “as hard as possible,” and 12 percent named “starting a business” as the most promising strategy.
Once again, minorities were more likely than whites to rank education at the top (although the gap was much smaller than on the question about personal actions). Ashley Canal, a young Hispanic in Merced, Calif., is on a waiting list to pursue a community-college certificate that will train her as a medical assistant, a job she thinks will provide more stability and resources for her three children than her current position as a cashier. “We’re just living off each paycheck,” she said. “I want to [go to college] because I want to get better pay.”
Strikingly, however, large numbers of those surveyed thought it infeasible for them personally—and for anyone who isn’t affluent—to afford a child’s education or to achieve other goals of financial security. Just 21 percent said it was “very realistic” that they could save enough to pay for their children’s college education; nearly twice as many thought it wasn’t. Cowdery, the graduate student, who is funding his education with “a lot of loans [plus] scholarships and working,” said his experience suggests “the population of undergraduates is coming more and more from richer and richer families. People in the middle and lower classes are having a harder and harder time getting their children educated.”
A meager 22 percent thought it was “very realistic” to expect regular increases in income or the ability to accumulate “enough money to be able to deal with a health emergency or job loss”; only 24 percent thought they could realistically “save enough to retire comfortably”; just 32 percent thought it realistic that they would ever have “job security.” Dale High, the 54-year-old Idaho trucker, is fatalistic about his ability to afford retirement. “Good luck,” he snorted. “By the time I retire, I hope I have Social Security, because other than that I’ve got nothing.” Larger proportions thought it “very realistic” they could afford quality health care or afford to dine out (37 percent each); pay their bills without accumulating debt (47 percent); balance work and family time (49 percent); or own a home (57 percent). Those who called themselves middle class weren’t appreciably more optimistic than respondents overall about their ability to meet any of these financial objectives.
NO SHELTER FROM THE STORM
All of these findings powerfully underscore the sense of contingency looming over so many Americans as they struggle to accumulate any kind of buffer against misfortune or even the challenges they can predict, such as paying for college or for retirement. Indeed, when asked to define the greatest financial hurdle they face, 32 percent mentioned not having enough savings to withstand an emergency, while 27 percent identified the inability to put aside money for long-term needs. Another 27 percent said their problem was the more immediate strain of income not keeping pace with expenses, and 7 percent identified their principal difficulty as balancing family and work.
Those polled were only slightly more optimistic about the ability of the middle class overall to meet financial challenges that require the ability to save. Asked again about paying for children’s college education, 49 percent said it was realistic for “only the upper class” to afford it, 37 percent said it was achievable for the middle-class and up, and 12 percent said “almost anyone” can afford to pay for college. Similarly, 46 percent said only the upper class could realistically accumulate enough savings to withstand a health emergency or job loss, and 45 percent said only the affluent could save enough to retire comfortably.
When asked about income and possessions—owning a home, eating out, getting raises, paying bills without sinking into debt—respondents saw the opportunities distributed more evenly. Surprisingly small proportions thought that only the upper class could obtain job security or good health care.
Yet, the overall message is of pervasive, entrenched vulnerability—a sense that many financial milestones once assumed as cornerstones of middle-class life are now beyond reach for all but the rich. That sense is often most powerful for those confronting these challenges directly. For instance, fewer than a fifth of self-identified middle-class Americans ages 40 to 59 said it was “very realistic” that they could save enough for retirement. Fewer than a fourth of middle-class respondents with children under 18 considered it very realistic that they could pay for college education. And fewer than half of full-time workers who call themselves middle class said it’s very realistic that they’ll enjoy job security.
In the catalog of losses this nation has suffered in its economic turmoil since 2000, the survey suggests, this stands out: For many average families, gone is the comfort that comes from believing they have built some shelter against life’s storms. “Our kids aren’t going to have [the security] that we’ve had,” said Cooper, the Chicago-area salesman. “And we don’t have what our parents had. There is no job security. Your job security is your ability to work.”
What could government to do buffer Americans from this financial insecurity? Given a choice of four public policies, a 38 percent plurality picked “making higher education more affordable and accessible.” Smaller groups wished to make health care more affordable (26 percent), make retirement benefits “more secure and reliable” (16 percent), and make home loans and refinancing “more affordable and accessible” (12 percent). Asked what steps private-sector businesses could take to improve conditions for the middle class, the leading preference was “hiring more people and paying higher wages and better benefits” (40 percent), followed distantly by “investing more in their local communities” (20 percent), and lowering prices for consumers (14 percent).
But there’s a problem: Most Americans lack confidence that the nation’s leaders, public or private, will respond to their worries. Like earlier Heartland Monitor surveys, this poll sends the unmistakable message that average Americans believe they are navigating more turbulent financial waters than earlier generations did—and that they are paddling alone, with little support from institutions or leaders.
That skepticism is reflected in the survey’s downbeat assessments of the nation’s direction and the political leadership in Washington. Just 29 percent of those surveyed said the nation is on the right track, while 60 percent said it is moving in the wrong direction. That’s a sharp deterioration from the survey in November (when the balance was much narrower, 41 percent to 51 percent) and the smallest right-track showing in this poll since December 2011. The share of respondents who expect the economy to improve over the next year skidded to 34 percent, down substantially from 44 percent last November, and essentially even with the 35 percent who say they expect the economy to deteriorate. (The remaining 28 percent expect no change.) Nonwhites were about twice as likely as whites to expect improvement. Adults under 30 were the most optimistic; respondents in their 40s, as on many other measures, were the most pessimistic.
Assessments of Obama’s economic agenda have also suffered since last year. Just 29 percent said the administration’s actions will “increase opportunity for people like you to get ahead,” while 43 percent expect their opportunities would diminish (21 percent saw no effect). That’s also a nosedive since Heartland Monitor polling last fall, and the worst showing for the president since December 2011. Only 21 percent of all whites (and 18 percent of noncollege whites) said they believed Obama’s agenda would improve their opportunities. Obama slipped noticeably on a broader question the survey has tracked since 2009: Just 40 percent said his policies “helped to avoid an even worse economic crisis and are fueling economic recovery,” while 47 percent preferred the negative view that his policies had “run up a record federal deficit while failing to significantly improve the economy.” Three-fifths of nonwhites agreed with the positive statement, while 55 percent of whites echoed the negative.
In this survey, completed before the Boston bombings, Obama’s overall approval rating tumbled as well, with just 46 percent offering a thumbs-up to his performance (his worst showing since late 2011) and 49 percent giving a thumbs-down. Among minorities, he retains a solid 73 percent approval rating, but just 36 percent of all whites—and a paltry 32 percent of noncollege whites—gave him positive marks. Only 38 percent of independents approved of the president’s performance.
Yet Obama still looks tall next to Congress: 76 percent of adults say they disapprove of Congress’s performance, and just 17 percent approve. Obama remains more trusted than lawmakers (by 41 percent to 33 percent) to develop solutions to the country’s economic challenges. His 8-point edge is only half as large as it was in November, but his advantage over congressional Republicans remains decisive among the mainstays of his national electoral coalition—minorities, young adults, and college-educated white women.
These skeptical assessments of Washington’s performance are a single strand in a broader skein of disenchantment with the nation’s leadership. When the survey asked whether the policies and actions of a long list of individuals and groups were helping the middle class, just one group generated a strongly positive response: 49 percent said “business owners in your area” were making things better; only 16 percent said they were making things worse (29 percent saw no impact). Almost all other choices fared poorly. Just 13 percent said major financial institutions were helping, while 55 percent said they were making things worse. Chief executives of major U.S. corporations faced a similar verdict: 15 percent positive to 54 percent negative. For Republican elected officials, the numbers were 17 percent positive to 46 percent negative; Democratic elected officials (28 percent to 40 percent) were not much better.
Congress as an institution ranked lowest of all: Just 8 percent of respondents said Congress was helping the middle class, compared with 64 percent who found Capitol Hill lawmakers a hazard. But “the member of Congress from your district” wasn’t so bad: 30 percent positive and 26 percent negative, while 31 percent saw their member as having no impact at all. Obama’s review tilted toward the negative: 45 percent said he was making things worse for the middle class, 36 percent said he was a help; the other 16 percent shrugged. Whites were almost twice as likely to say Obama was making things worse as making things better; members of minority groups felt almost exactly the opposite.
In a summary question, the survey asked respondents to choose between three competing explanations for the increasing struggles average families face. Just 17 percent picked the impersonal structural dynamics that many economists cite—“the economic impact of technology and globalization.” Twenty-three percent pointed their finger at “business leaders not paying their employees enough.” By far the largest group, at 54 percent, blamed “elected officials making the wrong policy decisions.” Government may absorb the most criticism, but the disenchantment and anxiety that radiates through this latest Heartland Monitor Poll suggests that most Americans believe that when it comes to the middle class’s tenuous position, there is plenty of blame to go around—and no quick solutions in sight.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed
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The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey is the 16th in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll, which explored how Americans define what it means to be middle class today, was conducted April 5-9 with 1,000 respondents reached by landline and cell phones. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Consulting’s strategic communications practice and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.