Heartland Monitor Poll

The American Dream — Under Threat

The new Heartland Monitor Poll shows a widespread belief that today’s children won’t have the same opportunities as their parents.

Children in a line holding the American flag. 
National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
Sept. 19, 2013, 4:15 p.m.

It’s a tough time to be a kid in Amer­ica. Or a par­ent.

In the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll, an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­an adults say it was bet­ter to be either a child or a par­ent when they were young rather than now. Over two-thirds be­lieve that when today’s kids grow up, they will en­joy less fin­an­cial se­cur­ity than adults today. And an­oth­er two-thirds say today’s chil­dren face more chal­lenges than op­por­tun­it­ies. On all of these ques­tions, the anxi­ety crosses lines of gender, race, and class.

Teen­agers, re­spond­ing to a sep­ar­ate sur­vey, were no­tice­ably more up­beat about their pro­spects — and even adults were more op­tim­ist­ic about kids in their fam­il­ies and neigh­bor­hoods than in the coun­try over­all. And Amer­ic­ans across ra­cial and class dif­fer­ences de­livered a gen­er­ally fa­vor­able as­sess­ment of the op­por­tun­it­ies avail­able to chil­dren to re­ceive a qual­ity edu­ca­tion, good health care, and equal treat­ment re­gard­less of their race or gender.

Yet this com­pre­hens­ive look at at­ti­tudes about the state of child­hood in Amer­ica con­veys a wide­spread sense that fam­il­ies today face com­plex and in­ter­con­nec­ted chal­lenges rooted in an eco­nomy that typ­ic­ally re­quires earn­ings from two par­ents — and leaves them too little time to shape their chil­dren’s val­ues, es­pe­cially against the tug of an in­es­cap­able me­dia and on­line cul­ture. Par­ents are “let­ting tech­no­logy raise their kids,” says Chris Hupp, a 29-year-old bar­tender from San Ant­o­nio who re­spon­ded to the sur­vey. “Back then, a fam­ily could sus­tain it­self on one in­come. Now both par­ents have to work, and the kids end up rais­ing them­selves “¦ and that leads kids to make poor de­cisions.”

These are anxi­et­ies that have waxed and waned through Amer­ic­an life since wo­men star­ted mov­ing heav­ily in­to the work­force after 1960. But the poll leaves little doubt that the Great Re­ces­sion and its gruel­ing af­ter­math have sharpened these wor­ries. Some re­spond­ents fo­cused more on eco­nom­ic pres­sures, oth­ers on cul­tur­al and me­dia in­flu­ences, but both sets of con­cerns led most to the same place: a sense that fam­ily life is un­der enorm­ous strain. For kids today, wor­ries Con­nie Rivera, a se­cur­ity guard and a par­ent from the Bronx, N.Y., it’s a chal­lenge “just try­ing to stay afloat. It’s a com­pet­ing world”¦. They’re go­ing to have to settle for less.”

With the eco­nomy still strug­gling in low gear, the sur­vey also cap­tures a no­tice­able chill in pub­lic at­ti­tudes about the na­tion’s dir­ec­tion and polit­ic­al lead­er­ship. The share of Amer­ic­ans who say the coun­try is on the wrong track spiked in the poll to its highest level since Decem­ber 2011, and Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing skid­ded from last June to just 40 per­cent — the low­est meas­ured in any of the 18 quarterly Heart­land Mon­it­or polls con­duc­ted since April 2009. (See “Bad News for Obama”) At­ti­tudes to­ward Con­gress also hit a new low. When asked whom they trus­ted to make de­cisions af­fect­ing chil­dren, Amer­ic­ans ex­pressed mod­est con­fid­ence, at best, in any fig­ures bey­ond those closest to home, such as teach­ers. That find­ing re­af­firmed one of the most power­ful trends in the Heart­land Mon­it­or polling: the skep­ti­cism of most Amer­ic­ans that they can ex­pect help from any in­sti­tu­tion more dis­tant than the “little pla­toons” of com­munity and fam­ily.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 18th in a series ex­amin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll, which ex­plored how Amer­ic­ans as­sess the state of child­hood and par­ent­hood, sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones Sept. 3-7. The sur­vey has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points.

In ad­di­tion, Na­tion­al Journ­al con­duc­ted a sep­ar­ate on­line sur­vey of 300 teen­agers ages 13 to 18 (only in­clud­ing 18-year-olds who are still in high school); teen par­ti­cipants re­ceived a small com­pens­a­tion for re­spond­ing. The sur­vey is re­flect­ive of the demo­graph­ics of Amer­ic­an teens, but it does not carry the same stat­ist­ic­al valid­ity as the ran­dom phone sur­vey of adults.

Both sur­veys were su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy, Brent McGoldrick, Jeremy Ruch, and Jocelyn Land­au of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice.

The faith that each gen­er­a­tion will live bet­ter than its pre­de­cessor has been de­scribed as the op­er­at­ive defin­i­tion of the Amer­ic­an Dream. These latest Heart­land Mon­it­or res­ults show how a dec­ade of eco­nom­ic tur­moil and stag­na­tion has strained that con­vic­tion.

As in earli­er polls, Amer­ic­ans di­vided about equally on wheth­er the lad­der of up­ward mo­bil­ity is still op­er­at­ing in their own lives. Just un­der half of those polled (45 per­cent) say they have more op­por­tun­ity to get ahead than their par­ents did at the same age, but a com­bined ma­jor­ity say they either have less (27 per­cent) or about the same (26 per­cent) op­por­tun­ity. Minor­it­ies, as in earli­er sur­veys, re­main broadly op­tim­ist­ic, with 60 per­cent say­ing they have more op­por­tun­ity than their par­ents, versus 23 per­cent less. Whites are more equi­voc­al, with a mod­est 38 per­cent see­ing more op­por­tun­ity in their lives, to 29 per­cent who see less; whites without col­lege de­grees are even more du­bi­ous (35 per­cent to 31 per­cent).

Look­ing for­ward, Amer­ic­ans are much more uni­fied — and un­easy. Just 20 per­cent of those polled said that when today’s chil­dren are adults, they will have more op­por­tun­ity to get ahead than adults today; that’s the smal­lest num­ber the Heart­land Mon­it­or has re­cor­ded in the five times it has asked that ques­tion since Ju­ly 2009. More than twice as many re­spond­ents, 45 per­cent, say they ex­pect today’s kids to have less op­por­tun­ity as adults. That’s the most who have ever taken that pess­im­ist­ic po­s­i­tion. An­oth­er 30 per­cent ex­pect op­por­tun­it­ies to re­main about the same.

When the poll last asked this ques­tion, in Septem­ber 2012, 51 per­cent of minor­it­ies an­ti­cip­ated ex­pand­ing op­por­tun­it­ies, about double the level for whites. But in the new sur­vey, ex­pect­a­tions have darkened for both groups: Now just 36 per­cent of non­whites, and a mi­cro­scop­ic 14 per­cent of whites, be­lieve the next gen­er­a­tion will en­joy more op­por­tun­ity. (Strik­ingly, whites with col­lege de­grees, the group that has fared best in the re­ces­sion, are even more pess­im­ist­ic than whites without ad­vanced edu­ca­tion.) Young adults, ages 18 to 29, split about evenly about wheth­er op­por­tun­ity would in­crease or con­tract for today’s kids; but in every older age group, no more than one-fifth ex­pec­ted im­prove­ment. “All the factor­ies have gone over­seas,” says George Hack­el, a 76-year-old re­tired brick­lay­er in May­field, Ky. “There are less op­por­tun­it­ies un­less you want to be flip­ping ham­burgers.” Hupp, the San Ant­o­nio bar­tender, is nearly 50 years young­er, but he sees a sim­il­ar dy­nam­ic. “The cost of edu­ca­tion is go­ing up, and jobs are be­ing out­sourced to oth­er coun­tries,” Hupp says. “It’s a down­ward spir­al.”

These eco­nom­ic anxi­et­ies in­fuse the deeply dis­pir­ited re­sponses to the poll’s two broad­est ques­tions. One asked re­spond­ents wheth­er it was bet­ter to be a child in the U.S. now or when they were grow­ing up. Just 16 per­cent said they thought it was bet­ter to be a child today; 79 per­cent said it was bet­ter when they were young. On this ques­tion, minor­it­ies (at 28 per­cent) were more likely than whites (12 per­cent) to say kids were bet­ter off today. But even 70 per­cent of non­whites said chil­dren were bet­ter off dur­ing their own youth — a re­mark­able find­ing, giv­en the civil-rights ad­vance­ments over the past half-cen­tury. Res­ults on this ques­tion var­ied hardly at all by edu­ca­tion, and par­ents of school-age chil­dren leaned even slightly fur­ther to­ward pre­fer­ring the past. Those earn­ing at least $100,000 were nearly as likely as those earn­ing less than $30,000 to say child­hood was bet­ter be­fore.

The same dy­nam­ics held on a com­pan­ion ques­tion that asked re­spond­ents wheth­er it was bet­ter to be a par­ent today or when they were grow­ing up. Again, an over­whelm­ing 75 per­cent picked the past; just 19 per­cent said it is bet­ter to be a par­ent today. At least two-thirds of those in every age and in­come cat­egory, as well as more than 70 per­cent of whites and minor­it­ies, said it was bet­ter to be a par­ent in earli­er gen­er­a­tions.

Some of this surely re­flects the prim­al in­stinct to re­mem­ber the past through rose-colored glasses; adults have been lament­ing the cor­rup­tion of youth throughout hu­man his­tory. (“Why can’t they be like we were, per­fect in every way?” went the lyr­ics to “Kids,” a num­ber in the 1960 Broad­way mu­sic­al Bye Bye Bird­ie.) But the over­whelm­ing con­sensus in the sur­vey that fam­ily life was easi­er for earli­er gen­er­a­tions also seems to braid to­geth­er two dis­tinct, if in­ter­twined, con­cerns: a more con­ser­vat­ive lament about erod­ing val­ues, and a lib­er­al un­ease over con­strict­ing eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity.

Abe Keil, a 42-year-old air­craft mech­an­ic in St. Louis, was one of many re­spond­ents who saw cul­tur­al de­cline key­ing the chal­lenges to the mod­ern fam­ily. “When I was grow­ing up, you were cor­rec­ted at a friend’s house,” he in­sisted. “Now kids do what they want to do. The lib­er­als don’t think you should pun­ish your kid.” Sarah Goad, a 47-year-old who is un­em­ployed in Sum­mer­town, Tenn., sees a break­down in per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity. “They have no concept of re­spons­ib­il­ity: how to act “¦ how to func­tion out in the real world,” she says. “Their par­ents have handed them too much on a plat­ter.”

The oth­er track of con­cern fol­lows the eco­nom­ic threats cited by Hack­el and Hupp. Jesse Graczyk, who is un­em­ployed and watch­ing his kids in Avon, Ohio, while his wife works in a res­taur­ant, says it is dif­fi­cult to find the money for fam­ily activ­it­ies. “When I grew up, my mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad worked; and back then, he was able to find ways to “¦ do things as a fam­ily,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s not af­ford­able to do fam­ily things.” Com­pound­ing his con­cern, Graczyk says, his wife’s hours makes it hard for her “to get qual­ity time with the kids” while he wor­ries they are get­ting “over-at­ten­tion from me.”

Joy Eis­en­hower, a re­tired nurse in Smyrna, Del., who has four adult chil­dren and is now rais­ing two young­er chil­dren as their leg­al guard­i­an, was one of many re­spond­ents who wor­ried that good jobs won’t be avail­able even for youths who can af­ford a col­lege edu­ca­tion. “We’re not giv­ing them the tools to be able to deal with a lot of things com­ing down the pike,” she says. “There’s no job se­cur­ity. Tech­no­logy is tak­ing a lot of jobs away. What place needs a tele­phone op­er­at­or?”

These twin strands of anxi­ety wound through re­sponses to an­oth­er bank of ques­tions that asked re­spond­ents about what today’s chil­dren could ex­pect when they come of age. Most of those polled ex­pressed con­cern about the ex­tern­al con­di­tions that will face the rising gen­er­a­tion — and the val­ues with which they will con­front those chal­lenges. Just 21 per­cent said that com­pared with today’s adults, young people will have more “fin­an­cial se­cur­ity, in­clud­ing a steady job and own­ing a home without too much debt,” while 68 per­cent thought they would have less of those things. Only 27 per­cent thought today’s kids would have more “fin­an­cial free­dom “¦ the abil­ity to af­ford some lux­ur­ies and a com­fort­able re­tire­ment,” while 62 per­cent thought those things would be more rare. Minor­it­ies were some­what more likely than whites to ex­pect im­prove­ment, but most of them as well thought con­di­tions would de­teri­or­ate.

The pro­gnos­is wasn’t much bet­ter on ex­pect­a­tions about the val­ues of the young­er gen­er­a­tion: 65 per­cent of adults thought that, com­pared with their own gen­er­a­tion, today’s kids as adults would dis­play less pat­ri­ot­ism; 63 per­cent thought their work eth­ic would flag; and 53 per­cent be­lieved they would be­have with less fin­an­cial re­spons­ib­il­ity. Des­pite stud­ies show­ing the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion pos­sess­ing a deep in­terest in vol­un­tar­ism and pub­lic ser­vice, 48 per­cent thought they would show less civic re­spons­ib­il­ity; 41 per­cent ex­pec­ted more. (Age shaped the re­sponses on this ques­tion: Young adults ages 18 to 29, by a sol­id 56 per­cent to 33 per­cent, thought today’s young people would ex­hib­it more civic re­spons­ib­il­ity.)

Some of this may re­flect the Bye Bye Bird­ie tend­ency of older people to see every gen­er­a­tion as a step back to­ward the swamp, but it’s worth not­ing that par­ents of school-age chil­dren didn’t dif­fer much on either these eco­nom­ic or val­ues judg­ments.

Giv­en these dim ex­pect­a­tions, it’s no sur­prise that those sur­veyed, by a re­sound­ing 66 per­cent to 25 per­cent, said that chil­dren in the U.S. today are faced with more chal­lenges than op­por­tun­it­ies. The res­ult was quite dif­fer­ent when the poll asked wheth­er “chil­dren in your com­munity, like those in your fam­ily and neigh­bor­hood,” face more chal­lenges or op­por­tun­it­ies than the av­er­age child. With the lens pulled tight­er, 45 per­cent of all adults said kids in their or­bit had more op­por­tun­it­ies than av­er­age, while 42 per­cent saw great­er than av­er­age chal­lenges; par­ents split 47 per­cent to 41 per­cent to­ward more op­por­tun­it­ies.

Still, that’s hardly a ringing en­dorse­ment. And this ques­tion pro­voked sharp­er dis­tinc­tions along class and ra­cial lines. While whites tilted slightly to­ward see­ing more op­por­tun­it­ies for kids in their ra­di­us, minor­it­ies bent to­ward see­ing great­er chal­lenges. The con­trast was even more vivid on edu­ca­tion and in­come: Those earn­ing at least $100,000 were more than twice as likely as those earn­ing less than $30,000 to see great­er than av­er­age op­por­tun­ity for kids in their im­me­di­ate circle. Nearly three-fifths of adults with col­lege de­grees saw more than av­er­age op­por­tun­it­ies for kids around them. Only about two-fifths of adults without de­grees agreed. Op­tim­ism about the next gen­er­a­tion is now an­oth­er entry on the long list of ways that life is di­ver­ging for Amer­ic­ans with and without ad­vanced edu­ca­tion.

In ad­di­tion, the poll offered a pan­or­amic look at how adults, in­clud­ing par­ents, as­sess the ma­jor op­por­tun­it­ies and risks con­front­ing today’s young people.

Amer­ic­ans offered reas­on­ably pos­it­ive as­sess­ments when asked to eval­u­ate wheth­er today’s chil­dren had ac­cess to a half-dozen con­di­tions that could help them suc­ceed, in­clud­ing qual­ity edu­ca­tion and health care; equal treat­ment re­gard­less of race or gender; suf­fi­cient love and at­ten­tion from their fam­ily; and enough time to play and have fun. In each case, no more than about two-fifths said these con­di­tions were “very ac­cess­ible” for the av­er­age child. But in all six cases, at least two-thirds thought these con­di­tions were either “very” or at least “some­what” ac­cess­ible for the av­er­age kid.

While just about one-fourth thought a qual­ity edu­ca­tion was very ac­cess­ible for the av­er­age child, an­oth­er 49 per­cent con­sidered it at least some­what ac­cess­ible. Eighty per­cent be­lieved the op­por­tun­ity to be treated equally “re­gard­less of gender, race, ori­ent­a­tion, or dis­ab­il­ity” was now very or some­what avail­able to chil­dren, with minor­it­ies, strik­ingly, re­spond­ing as pos­it­ively as whites. Re­spond­ents showed the most hes­it­a­tion when asked wheth­er today’s kids had “fu­ture op­por­tun­it­ies to get good jobs as adults”: Just 16 per­cent saw those op­por­tun­it­ies as widely avail­able, while an­oth­er 56 per­cent con­sidered them only some­what ac­cess­ible and about a fourth thought they were not very, or not at all, ac­cess­ible. On all of these meas­ures, par­ents of school-age chil­dren differed little from oth­er adults. About three-fourths of par­ents also ex­pressed sat­is­fac­tion with the child-care op­tions avail­able to them, with cost far out­dis­tan­cing qual­ity as the top con­cern.

Par­ents again var­ied little from oth­er adults when asked to rank 10 po­ten­tial chal­lenges fa­cing today’s young people. For each of the 10 chal­lenges lis­ted, at least 86 per­cent of adults said they presen­ted either a “very” or “some­what” ser­i­ous threat to chil­dren. Sol­id ma­jor­it­ies of 55 per­cent or more thought the av­er­age child faced “very ser­i­ous” risk (in as­cend­ing or­der) of miss­ing edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­it­ies be­cause they were too ex­pens­ive; ex­per­i­en­cing or wit­ness­ing vi­ol­ence in the home; en­dan­ger­ing their health with al­co­hol or ci­gar­ettes; be­ing ex­posed to vi­ol­ent or sexu­ally ex­pli­cit con­tent on­line or in the me­dia; los­ing their pri­vacy through the In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia; or be­ing ex­posed to drugs and crime in their neigh­bor­hood.

Rivera, the His­pan­ic se­cur­ity guard in the Bronx, feels those threats acutely. “When I was grow­ing up, there were more activ­it­ies school-wise to keep us out of the street,” she says. “Now my chil­dren go to school, and there’s no fund­ing and noth­ing for them to do after school. There are so many kids out­side, and that leads to bad stuff.” Not only urb­an par­ents wor­ried about the latch­key prob­lem. “Kids have chal­lenges, be­cause both par­ents work and they have no su­per­vi­sion,” says Brit­tany Hurst, a stay-at-home moth­er in the small vil­lage of We­st­on, Ohio. “Quite a few kids come over to play be­cause their par­ents are work­ing”¦. And a lot of the older teen­agers in the com­munity kind of just hang out and loiter at the park, smoking and things.”

When asked what they con­sidered the biggest threat to their chil­dren’s “safety and well-be­ing,” par­ents ranked in or­der un­safe driv­ing (22 per­cent); drug and al­co­hol use (19 per­cent); bul­ly­ing (16 per­cent); do­ing poorly in school (11 per­cent); and on­line pred­at­ors (10 per­cent). By con­trast, the teens polled in the sep­ar­ate on­line sur­vey thought their par­ents (by far) were most con­cerned about them do­ing poorly in school (43 per­cent), fol­lowed by drug and al­co­hol use (20 per­cent); bul­ly­ing (10 per­cent); and on­line pred­at­ors and un­safe sex (8 per­cent each). Just 7 per­cent of teens thought their par­ents wor­ried most about un­safe driv­ing, which was, in fact, par­ents’ top con­cern. That was only one of many areas in which today’s teens took a very dif­fer­ent pos­ture than their par­ents.

Per­haps not shock­ingly for any­one who has raised a teen or can re­call those years, the teen­agers who par­ti­cip­ated in a par­al­lel on­line poll ex­pressed pretty much the op­pos­ite view of their par­ents on sev­er­al ques­tions. But, in re­veal­ing ways, they also con­verged with older gen­er­a­tions.

On the big ques­tion of wheth­er teen­agers now face more op­por­tun­it­ies or chal­lenges, teens and the par­ents of teens broke in sim­il­ar dir­ec­tions, with two-thirds see­ing mostly chal­lenges. A 41 per­cent plur­al­ity of teens thought they per­son­ally had more op­por­tun­it­ies than the av­er­age teen­ager, com­pared with 27 per­cent who thought they faced more chal­lenges; par­ents of teens bent even fur­ther to­ward be­liev­ing their chil­dren en­joyed bet­ter-than-av­er­age op­por­tun­it­ies.

Teens and teens’ par­ents also differed only mod­estly in rank­ing the op­por­tun­it­ies avail­able to today’s youth, al­though teens were con­sid­er­ably less likely to be­lieve that “suf­fi­cient love and at­ten­tion from their fam­ily” was widely ac­cess­ible. The two groups broadly con­verged as well in rank­ing the threats fa­cing young people, ex­cept that teens were much less likely to be­lieve the av­er­age kid is ex­posed to vi­ol­ence out­side the home, or to con­sider me­dia vi­ol­ence a ser­i­ous threat.

Wider chasms opened on oth­er fronts. Un­like par­ents, teens showed much more op­tim­ism about the fu­ture and much less long­ing for the past. Es­sen­tially re­vers­ing the res­ults among adults, 45 per­cent of teens thought they would have more op­por­tun­it­ies to get ahead than today’s adults, while only 24 per­cent thought they would ex­per­i­ence few­er op­por­tun­it­ies. While adults over­whelm­ingly picked the past, teens split closely on wheth­er it is bet­ter to grow up today (54 per­cent) or in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions (46 per­cent). The groups differed again, but not nearly as much, on par­ent­ing: 40 per­cent of teens thought it was bet­ter to be a par­ent today (roughly double the share of par­ents of teen­agers who said so), but 60 per­cent still thought it was easi­er for earli­er gen­er­a­tions.

Some of the most telling con­trasts came in the way par­ents and teens as­sessed the way the lat­ter are spend­ing their time. Nearly three-fourths of par­ents of school-age kids ex­pressed a broad fear that par­ents “are too busy with work and their own per­son­al lives” to spend enough time with kids, while just un­der one-fifth wor­ried that “par­ents are too closely in­volved in every as­pect of their chil­dren’s lives.” Teens took the op­pos­ite view: 68 per­cent said their par­ents “are too closely in­volved in every as­pect of my life,” while 32 per­cent thought par­ents were too pre­oc­cu­pied with work.

Among adults, a re­sound­ing 76 per­cent said kids are spend­ing “too much time watch­ing TV and play­ing video games,” while only 16 per­cent said kids “are in­volved in too many sports, clubs, and activ­it­ies and are overly sched­uled.” The sur­vey didn’t ask teens to judge their di­git­al habits, but on the broad­er is­sue, they con­verged to a sur­pris­ing ex­tent with par­ents: 74 per­cent said they would “like to be in­volved in more or­gan­ized activ­it­ies that give me something to do,” while only 26 per­cent said they are over­sched­uled with such op­tions.

Still, teens re­jec­ted the por­trait of them as a gen­er­a­tion twid­dling their thumbs (or twid­dling them over video con­trols): Only 27 per­cent said they don’t par­ti­cip­ate in any ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies, and 44 per­cent said they are spend­ing at least six hours a week on those pur­suits. Nearly one in five said they work at a pay­ing job dur­ing the school year, and al­most three in 10 said they did so over the sum­mer.

Teens di­verged again from older gen­er­a­tions on two key ques­tions re­lat­ing to edu­ca­tion. Like earli­er Heart­land Mon­it­or polls, this sur­vey found a sur­pris­ing de­gree of di­vi­sion among adults over wheth­er a col­lege edu­ca­tion is “a tick­et to the middle class that helps people get good jobs” (53 per­cent), or “an eco­nom­ic bur­den that is of­ten too ex­pens­ive and re­quires tak­ing on debt to pay for” (39 per­cent). But teens wer­en’t nearly as con­flic­ted: 86 per­cent de­scribed col­lege as a good in­vest­ment, to only 14 per­cent who saw it as not worth the cost. More than two-thirds of teen­agers say they ex­pect to at­tend a four-year col­lege when they fin­ish high school; just 2 per­cent an­ti­cip­ate im­me­di­ately en­ter­ing the work­force.

An­oth­er telling dif­fer­ence came on a ques­tion about who is most re­spons­ible for kids suc­ceed­ing in school. Among par­ents of school-age chil­dren, some two-thirds picked par­ents, while about one-sixth iden­ti­fied teach­ers and only one in 10 named the chil­dren them­selves. Teens vir­tu­ally in­ver­ted those res­ults: Only one in eight picked par­ents, one in 14 picked teach­ers, and about four in five said they were most re­spons­ible per­son­ally for their school per­form­ance. For the most part, the poll found, teens are con­fid­ent about how they are ex­er­cising that re­spons­ib­il­ity: Asked to rate their sat­is­fac­tion with dif­fer­ent as­pects of their lives, teens put their school per­form­ance, health, per­son­al safety, and aca­dem­ic fu­ture at the top of the list, and their phys­ic­al ap­pear­ance and fam­ily’s fin­an­cial situ­ation at the bot­tom.

The sense among par­ents that they — rather than teach­ers or the kids them­selves — bear primary re­spons­ib­il­ity for their chil­dren’s school per­form­ance cap­tures a con­sist­ent go-it-alone strain among them in the poll. In a vari­ety of ways, par­ents ex­pressed the be­lief that in rais­ing their chil­dren they are op­er­at­ing with few al­lies. And, mostly, the poll sug­gests, they are du­bi­ous that gov­ern­ment or big private in­sti­tu­tions will, or even should, do much to help them.

Al­though the sur­vey found that both par­ents and all adults demon­strated a sub­stan­tial trust in teach­ers, school ad­min­is­trat­ors, and coaches to make de­cisions that are good for kids, in­sti­tu­tions a step fur­ther from home re­ceived equi­voc­al rat­ings at best: 69 per­cent ex­pressed a “great deal” or “some” trust in re­li­gious lead­ers, 52 per­cent in Pres­id­ent Obama, 46 per­cent in state and loc­al gov­ern­ment lead­ers, 28 per­cent in Con­gress, and only 22 per­cent in com­pan­ies that pro­duce movies and video games for chil­dren.

The mod­ern com­mu­nic­a­tions re­volu­tion that has seen the pro­lif­er­a­tion of smart­phones, tab­lets, and so­cial me­dia also pro­voked a mixed re­ac­tion and stirred some of the most im­pas­sioned re­sponses in fol­low-up in­ter­views. Among all adults, 48 per­cent said the com­mu­nic­a­tions changes have had mostly a neg­at­ive ef­fect on chil­dren by ex­pos­ing them to in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­tent, com­prom­ising their pri­vacy or isol­at­ing them; 43 per­cent said they have had mostly pos­it­ive ef­fects by al­low­ing par­ents to stay in closer touch and provid­ing kids ac­cess to more in­form­a­tion. Par­ents tilted slightly fur­ther to­ward the neg­at­ive side. Hurst, a stay-at-home mom, was one of those who be­lieved the com­mu­nic­a­tions re­volu­tion is be­ne­fit­ing fam­il­ies. “It’s easi­er today, be­cause there’s a lot more abil­ity for par­ents to con­nect,” she says. “They can use the In­ter­net and com­puters as a par­ent­ing re­source.” But Jac­queline Mat­thews, a re­tired tele­phone op­er­at­or in Ports­mouth, Va., was one of many who wor­ried that di­git­al en­ter­tain­ment was con­sum­ing child­hood, partly be­cause it is filling the void left by the many par­ents who work out­side the home. “They’re in­volved with their own ca­reers a lot and pawn their kids off on com­puters,” she says.

Par­ents don’t seem to be an­ti­cip­at­ing much help from busi­ness or gov­ern­ment, either. Just 43 per­cent of par­ents (and 42 per­cent of all adults) agreed that the “en­tire coun­try has a shared re­spons­ib­il­ity to in­vest more in chil­dren and young fam­il­ies,” with such policies as paid leave or flex­ible work sched­ules that may be avail­able only to par­ents; 48 per­cent of par­ents (and 51 per­cent of all adults) en­dorsed the com­pet­ing state­ment that “rais­ing “¦ chil­dren is the re­spons­ib­il­ity of the par­ents” and “should not be sub­sid­ized through high­er costs for busi­nesses [or] “¦ high­er taxes and longer work­ing hours for non­par­ents.”

Even more em­phat­ic­ally, only about one-third of both par­ents and oth­er adults said the best way to make rear­ing chil­dren more af­ford­able is to in­crease “pub­lic spend­ing on pro­grams like uni­ver­sal pre-K, im­prove­ments in primary and sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion, sub­sidies for child care, guar­an­teed health care for chil­dren, and col­lege tu­ition as­sist­ance, even if it means high­er taxes.” About three-fifths of par­ents and oth­er adults said a bet­ter way to help par­ents was to cut taxes, “even if it means less spend­ing on pub­lic pro­grams.” Minor­it­ies were more likely than whites to prefer pub­lic spend­ing, but even a slight ma­jor­ity of them picked tax cuts. When it comes to rais­ing chil­dren, all of these res­ults sug­gest, par­ents very much feel that they are home alone.

Contributions by Michael Mellody

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