Why Some Americans Buy Stocks and Others Don’t

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll helps explain the divide.

A board on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows the closing number for the Dow Jones Industrial average Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011. The Dow Jones industrial average closed above 12,000 Tuesday for the first time in 2 1/2 years. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
Nov. 21, 2013, 4 p.m.

Five years after the crash of 2008, Amer­ic­ans are sharply di­ver­ging across lines of in­come and edu­ca­tion in their at­ti­tudes to­ward the fin­an­cial sys­tem and ex­per­i­ences with it, the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll has found.

Down one path, most adults with col­lege de­grees are em­ploy­ing a wide range of fin­an­cial tools with con­fid­ence that they are strength­en­ing their fam­ily’s se­cur­ity, the poll found. Down the oth­er, far few­er adults without col­lege de­grees are ac­cess­ing these same tools — and many more of them are view­ing the fin­an­cial sys­tem with skep­ti­cism, hes­it­a­tion, and even sus­pi­cion. Sim­il­ar, if some­times less pro­nounced, dif­fer­ences are evid­ent across in­come levels, as well.

This di­ver­gence rings through con­trast­ing at­ti­tudes held by those with and without de­grees on everything from con­fid­ence in their abil­ity to man­age a home pur­chase, to par­ti­cip­a­tion in 401(k) re­tire­ment plans, to the use of cred­it cards, to in­di­vidu­als’ self-as­sess­ments of wheth­er they are mak­ing suf­fi­cient pro­gress on key goals such as sav­ing for a child’s edu­ca­tion.

These dif­fer­ences are rooted in vary­ing eco­nom­ic cir­cum­stances: Adults without col­lege de­grees were twice as likely as those with them to say they have no money to spend each month after pay­ing their bills. But the di­ver­gence also re­flects very dif­fer­ent at­ti­tudes across edu­ca­tion­al and in­come lines on wheth­er debt does more to ex­pand or in­hib­it op­por­tun­ity and wheth­er the fin­an­cial sys­tem of­fers an ef­fect­ive op­por­tun­ity to build wealth — or a white-knuckle trip through ex­cess­ively tur­bu­lent wa­ters. “The fin­an­cial sys­tem is volat­ile,” said Alv­in H. Pear­son, an as­sist­ant gen­er­al man­ager for a pub­lic trans­port­a­tion agency in Mem­ph­is, Tenn., who re­spon­ded to the sur­vey. “I only in­vest a por­tion be­cause I can only af­ford to lose a por­tion.”

The con­trast­ing at­ti­tudes emerged in a sur­vey that car­ried a bit­ing early-winter chill in as­sess­ments of Pres­id­ent Obama, Con­gress, the na­tion’s dir­ec­tion, and the eco­nomy’s tra­ject­ory. With a sol­id ma­jor­ity of those polled rat­ing their per­son­al fin­an­cial situ­ation as only fair or poor, a ma­jor­ity de­clar­ing that the eco­nomy re­mains mired in re­ces­sion, and few­er than three in 10 ex­pect­ing con­di­tions to im­prove over the next year, Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing in the sur­vey has tumbled to the low­est level the Heart­land Mon­it­or poll has ever re­cor­ded, just 38 per­cent (see “Down, Down, Down,” p. 16). For Con­gress, even that mea­ger num­ber looks moun­tain­ous: Only 9 per­cent ap­proved of its per­form­ance. For the polit­ic­al sys­tem, these num­bers sug­gest, Oc­to­ber 2013 was about as good a month as Oc­to­ber 1929 was for the fin­an­cial sys­tem.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 19th in a series ex­amin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll, which ex­plored how Amer­ic­ans use, and re­late to, the fin­an­cial sys­tem, sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones Nov. 2-6. The sur­vey has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points. The sur­vey was su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy, Brent McGoldrick, Jeremy Ruch, and Jocelyn Land­au of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice.

The poll found that sub­stan­tial num­bers of Amer­ic­ans are em­ploy­ing sev­er­al ba­sic fin­an­cial tools. Gen­er­ally, re­spond­ents to this sur­vey re­por­ted some­what high­er levels of par­ti­cip­a­tion in the fin­an­cial sys­tem than the Fed­er­al Re­serve Board re­cor­ded in its most re­cent Sur­vey of Con­sumer Fin­ances in 2010.

Asked to pick from a list of com­mon fin­an­cial tools, ma­jor­it­ies in the new Heart­land Mon­it­or poll said they now owned a check­ing ac­count (84 per­cent); sav­ings ac­count (73 per­cent); cred­it card (63 per­cent); and life in­sur­ance (58 per­cent). Par­ti­cip­a­tion fell sharply after that, with much smal­ler shares re­port­ing that they pos­sessed an em­ploy­er-sponsored 401(k) re­tire­ment plan (37 per­cent); a per­son­al in­vest­ment ac­count (30 per­cent); an em­ploy­er pen­sion oth­er than a 401(k) (26 per­cent); an auto­mat­ic paycheck with­draw­al for pur­poses oth­er than re­tire­ment (24 per­cent); or an an­nu­ity (13 per­cent). Just 8 per­cent said they owned a trust fund.

Ac­cess to these fin­an­cial tools var­ied little across ra­cial lines; vir­tu­ally identic­al shares of whites and non­whites, for in­stance, re­por­ted hav­ing  sav­ings ac­counts or life in­sur­ance. But the sur­vey re­vealed sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ences by in­come and edu­ca­tion even on use of the most com­monly avail­able fin­an­cial tools.

Some 94 per­cent of col­lege-edu­cated adults re­por­ted they have a check­ing ac­count, com­pared with 78 per­cent of those without de­grees. The gap was even wider between those with and without four-year-col­lege de­grees on pos­ses­sion of a cred­it card (81 per­cent of those with de­grees versus 51 per­cent of those without); life in­sur­ance (70 per­cent versus 50 per­cent); and sav­ings ac­counts (84 per­cent versus 65 per­cent). On choices in­volving in­vest­ments in the stock mar­ket, those with de­grees were twice as likely (or more) to re­port in­volve­ment as those without. Forty-five per­cent of those with de­grees re­por­ted an in­vest­ment ac­count, for in­stance, com­pared with only 19 per­cent of those without de­grees. And while just un­der half of those with de­grees re­por­ted hav­ing a 401(k), only three in 10 of those without ad­vanced edu­ca­tion did so. Com­par­is­ons by in­come showed a sim­il­ar pat­tern, with up­per-in­come re­spond­ents more likely than less af­flu­ent fam­il­ies to re­port us­ing these tools. But even here, edu­ca­tion levels ex­er­ted a clear in­flu­ence: At the same in­come level, those with col­lege de­grees were gen­er­ally more likely than those without to re­port em­ploy­ing these tools, with the dif­fer­ences es­pe­cially pro­nounced among work­ers earn­ing less than $50,000 an­nu­ally.

Bri­an Desso, who re­pairs hos­pit­al equip­ment in Crown Point, Ind., was one of sev­er­al poll re­spond­ents who said the edu­ca­tion gap in use of fin­an­cial tools partly re­flec­ted a cul­tur­al di­vide. “You can still be suc­cess­ful and not have a col­lege de­gree,” says Desso, who has a bach­el­or’s de­gree in elec­tric­al en­gin­eer­ing. “You just don’t end up work­ing around people who are will­ing to talk about where their fin­ances are go­ing. The people around here who didn’t get their col­lege de­gree are work­ing at the steel mill or the re­finery, and they’re not go­ing to talk about in­vest­ments.” Desso says he learned this les­son close to home: Neither his fath­er, who was in con­struc­tion, nor his moth­er, who worked in op­to­metry, ob­tained a col­lege de­gree, and both “waited too long” be­fore ser­i­ously in­vest­ing for re­tire­ment.

Gary Thomas, who lives in Mon­roe, Ga., and has re­tired from a land­scap­ing busi­ness, largely agrees. Thomas, who nev­er re­ceived his de­gree, says those with ad­vanced cre­den­tials are more likely to travel in circles where fin­an­cial strategies and in­vest­ment op­por­tun­it­ies are dis­cussed — and more likely to have ex­cess cash to de­vote to them. Thomas says if he had money to in­vest, he would more likely put it in­to houses or gold than the stock mar­ket. “I’d rather make a little bit of profit than get in with some risky in­vest­ment,” he said.

Ex­per­i­ence with debt pro­duced a more var­ied pat­tern. Up­per-in­come re­spond­ents (from fam­il­ies earn­ing at least $100,000) were more likely than lower-middle-in­come fam­il­ies (earn­ing between $30,000 and $50,000) to re­port pos­sess­ing a home mort­gage and a car loan, but sim­il­ar pro­por­tions of the two groups re­por­ted cred­it-card and stu­dent-loan debt, un­paid per­son­al loans, and no debt at all. One clear dif­fer­ence: Lower-middle-in­come fam­il­ies were three times as likely as those at the top (33 per­cent com­pared with 11 per­cent) to re­port un­paid med­ic­al bills.

The evid­ence that bet­ter-edu­cated and more af­flu­ent fam­il­ies en­gage the fin­an­cial sys­tem more com­fort­ably re­sur­faced on a ques­tion about where people turn for guid­ance in man­aging their money. Sim­il­ar pro­por­tions of those with de­grees (45 per­cent) and without them (48 per­cent) said they re­lied on friends and fam­ily mem­bers. But those with at least a four-year col­lege edu­ca­tion were about twice as likely to say they have con­sul­ted a pro­fes­sion­al fin­an­cial ad­viser as those without a de­gree (46 per­cent versus 24 per­cent); again, even at the same in­come level, those with de­grees were far more likely than those without to re­port con­sult­ing fin­an­cial ad­visers. Smal­ler por­tions of the over­all sample re­por­ted turn­ing to ad­visers at their loc­al bank (24 per­cent), a cred­it uni­on (17 per­cent), fin­an­cial pub­lic­a­tions (13 per­cent), web­sites (11 per­cent), or tele­vi­sion pro­grams (only 8 per­cent).

When those who haven’t used a fin­an­cial ad­viser were asked the prin­cip­al reas­on why, nearly two in five of both those with and without de­grees said it was be­cause they handled their fin­ances them­selves. Those without ad­vanced edu­ca­tion were more likely to say they stayed away be­cause they didn’t have enough money to in­vest, while those with de­grees tilted slightly more to­ward re­luct­ance to pay ad­visers’ fees or doubts that ad­visers would in­vest in the in­terest of the cli­ent.

Just over half of adults (55 per­cent) ex­pressed con­fid­ence that they “have a sol­id plan” for their fin­ances. Not sur­pris­ingly, more-af­flu­ent fam­il­ies and those with de­grees were again more likely to be­lieve they have their fin­ances un­der con­trol, but the dif­fer­ences were not vast. Sim­il­arly, across the edu­ca­tion­al and class di­vides, over­whelm­ing ma­jor­it­ies said they were con­fid­ent they “un­der­stand the in­form­a­tion” they need to make im­port­ant fin­an­cial de­cisions.

On spe­cif­ic fin­an­cial chal­lenges, though, the sur­vey found more-pro­nounced con­fid­ence gaps. About 85 per­cent of those with col­lege de­grees ex­pressed con­fid­ence in their abil­ity to un­der­stand the in­form­a­tion needed to buy a home or plan for re­tire­ment; about 70 per­cent of those without de­grees shared that view on each ques­tion. While lower-middle-in­come fam­il­ies were nearly as con­fid­ent as the most af­flu­ent about their ca­pa­city to man­age a home pur­chase, they were much less cer­tain about their abil­ity to nav­ig­ate re­tire­ment.

Adam Wickander, a former Mar­ine now at­tend­ing col­lege in Ore­gon, said that while he was in the ser­vice he saw starkly dif­fer­ent at­ti­tudes to­ward man­aging money and de­cisions such as home-buy­ing. “I saw a gulf between the people who had an edu­ca­tion or who had par­ents who edu­cated them on the whole pro­cess and kids who came from situ­ations where nobody cared,” he said. “Usu­ally the of­ficers are com­ing from just out of col­lege, and they know how fin­an­cial in­sti­tu­tions work, they know how to take out a loan. The guys that just en­lis­ted out of high school, they didn’t really know how to do those things.”

Across a wide range of groups, the poll found, most Amer­ic­ans iden­ti­fied the same key in­gredi­ents of fin­an­cial health. About three-fourths or more of those sur­veyed said “pay­ing off and avoid­ing new debt” and “stick­ing to a monthly budget” were “very im­port­ant” steps to­ward meet­ing their per­son­al fin­an­cial goals. About two-thirds said the same about main­tain­ing an emer­gency con­tin­gency fund and sav­ing for re­tire­ment. Just about half placed that same pri­or­ity on four oth­er goals: writ­ing a will, pur­chas­ing life in­sur­ance, con­trib­ut­ing to a 401(k) or In­di­vidu­al Re­tire­ment Ac­count, and sav­ing for their chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion. Just one-third viewed it as very im­port­ant to save ahead for non­ne­ces­sit­ies, and, strik­ingly, only about one in eight said it was very im­port­ant to in­vest in the stock mar­ket. Only one-fourth termed it even “some­what im­port­ant” to enter the mar­ket; nearly three-fifths de­scribed it as not very or not at all im­port­ant. That was the only op­tion that a ma­jor­ity termed to be not im­port­ant.

Those with and without de­grees differed little on most of these goals. Again, the stock mar­ket pro­voked the greatest di­ver­gence. Those without de­grees (at 29 per­cent) were much less likely than those with them (51 per­cent) to view in­vest­ing in the mar­ket as “im­port­ant” to meet­ing their fin­an­cial goals; even at the same in­come level, col­lege gradu­ates were much more en­thu­si­ast­ic about par­ti­cip­at­ing in the stock mar­ket.

Desso is one of those. After hav­ing “been burned” in the hous­ing mar­ket, he con­siders stocks a bet­ter long-term bet, so long as “you’re will­ing to put blinders on in case the mar­ket goes down” and not pan­ic. “It’s a lot bet­ter than put­ting money in­to a house,” he be­lieves. “The hous­ing mar­ket is a crum­bling in­vest­ment.” Emily Blue, a col­lege-edu­cated mar­ket­ing of­fi­cial at Purdue Uni­versity, is also con­fid­ent that in­vest­ing in the mar­ket of­fers long-term op­por­tun­ity. “I know I can do things that people without high­er edu­ca­tion or a spe­cial­ized skill set could not do,” she said. “I have that ease know­ing that I’m pretty se­cure in my ca­reer path.”

When the sur­vey next asked re­spond­ents to re­port their pro­gress at ac­tu­ally meet­ing these fin­an­cial goals, the res­ults again poin­ted to­ward a two-track ex­per­i­ence. For sev­en of the 10 goals, at least two-fifths of adults self-re­por­ted that they are “be­hind” where they would like to be. Con­sist­ently, re­spond­ents without de­grees, or those from fam­il­ies of mod­est in­come, were much more likely than those with ad­vanced edu­ca­tion or more in­come to re­port they are fall­ing be­hind.

Over­all, Amer­ic­ans ex­pressed the most con­fid­ence about pay­ing off and avoid­ing debt (with 54 per­cent say­ing they are on track, and 21 per­cent say­ing they are ahead of where they hoped to be); stick­ing to a monthly budget (65 per­cent on track, 15 per­cent ahead); and buy­ing life in­sur­ance (43 per­cent on track, 21 per­cent ahead). Even among those without de­grees, only about one-fourth define them­selves as be­hind on the first two meas­ures, and just over one-third be­lieve they are lag­ging on the third.

Sur­vey re­spond­ents offered con­sid­er­ably more-equi­voc­al ver­dicts on their pro­gress on oth­er key tests. At least two-fifths of adults de­scribed them­selves as be­hind where they need to be on such meas­ures as con­trib­ut­ing to a 401(k) (42 per­cent); sav­ing for their chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion (43 per­cent); sav­ing for re­tire­ment or stock­pil­ing funds for non-ne­ces­sit­ies such as a va­ca­tion (44 per­cent in each case); main­tain­ing an emer­gency sav­ings fund (47 per­cent); in­vest­ing in the stock mar­ket (50 per­cent); and or­gan­iz­ing es­tate plan­ning (54 per­cent).

Re­peatedly across these meas­ures, those without de­grees, and with smal­ler fam­ily in­comes, were more likely to de­scribe them­selves as be­hind. About half of those without de­grees, com­pared with only about one-third of those with them, termed them­selves be­hind where they needed to be in sav­ing for re­tire­ment or their chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion. Al­most ex­actly half or more of work­ing-class fam­il­ies earn­ing between $30,000 and $50,000 said they were be­hind where they needed to be in sav­ing for re­tire­ment, con­trib­ut­ing to a 401(k), sav­ing for col­lege, and in­vest­ing in the stock mar­ket (though based on their oth­er an­swers, those fam­il­ies see that as a lux­ury, not a ne­ces­sity.) By con­trast, only about one-fourth or less of those with six-fig­ure in­comes said they are lag­ging on those same goals.

What makes that con­trast es­pe­cially strik­ing is that the fam­il­ies of more mod­est means are al­most ex­actly as likely as their wealth­i­er coun­ter­parts to re­port they are on track to­ward stick­ing to a monthly budget. On an­oth­er ques­tion, those fam­il­ies of more mod­est cir­cum­stance (wheth­er meas­ured by in­come or edu­ca­tion) were al­most ex­actly as likely as bet­ter-situ­ated fam­il­ies to say they put whatever ex­tra money they have to­ward pay­ing off debt rather than mak­ing new pur­chases. For fam­il­ies of mod­est means, their prob­lem, as they re­port it, is not fail­ing to prop­erly man­age their money, but rather not hav­ing enough money to man­age.

Re­sponses to an­oth­er ques­tion dra­mat­ic­ally un­der­lined that point. The poll found sub­stan­tial agree­ment across class lines about the “most fin­an­cially re­spons­ible use of any money “¦ left over after pay­ing your bills.” But it found jar­ring con­trasts in the num­ber of many people who felt they ever reached that de­sir­able state.

Both those with and without de­grees iden­ti­fied the same three fun­da­ment­ally con­ser­vat­ive op­tions as the best use for any ex­cess cash: pay­ing off debt, sav­ing in a bank, and adding to an emer­gency fund. Those ranked as the top three op­tions as well for both the work­ing-class and the most af­flu­ent fam­il­ies. Strik­ingly small per­cent­ages of those near the top and the bot­tom of the edu­ca­tion­al and in­come lad­ders said their top pri­or­ity with any ex­tra cash would be in­vest­ing in the stock mar­ket. All of this un­der­scores how the crash of 2008 has last­ingly tilted many Amer­ic­ans to­ward con­ser­vat­ive views about man­aging their money. Pear­son, the Mem­ph­is trans­port­a­tion of­fi­cial, ex­pressed the con­vic­tion of many in the poll when he said, “In these eco­nom­ic times, you have to live with­in your means. You can­not live to the stand­ard that so­ci­ety says you should.” His top fin­an­cial pri­or­ity is to build a big­ger emer­gency fund.

The breath­tak­ing con­trast on this ques­tion was in the num­ber of re­spond­ents who said they “rarely have any money left over” after pay­ing their bills. More than twice as many of those without de­grees (41 per­cent) as those with de­grees (19 per­cent) picked that op­tion, as did more than three times as many of those earn­ing from $30,000 to $50,000 (36 per­cent) com­pared with those earn­ing $100,000 or more (11 per­cent). At the same in­come level, those without de­grees were again more likely than those with them to say they had no leftover funds. The gap was just as dra­mat­ic on ques­tions that asked re­spond­ents how real­ist­ic they thought it was for them to main­tain a com­fort­able stand­ard of liv­ing in re­tire­ment, save for their chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion, or stock­pile enough in­come to meet six months of ex­penses if they faced a job loss or health emer­gency. In each case, lower-middle-in­come and non­col­lege re­spond­ents were far more likely to say they did not be­lieve they could real­ist­ic­ally achieve those goals. “People without col­lege,” says Thomas, the re­tired land­scape-busi­ness own­er, “they’re liv­ing paycheck to paycheck.”

As in oth­er Heart­land Mon­it­or polls, very few adults in the new sur­vey ex­pressed much con­fid­ence in any large in­sti­tu­tion to help them nav­ig­ate these choppy wa­ters. Not more than about one-fifth of those polled said they have more con­fid­ence than a year ago that any of 10 groups the sur­vey lis­ted is mak­ing de­cisions that will im­prove their per­son­al fin­an­cial situ­ation. Loc­al banks scored the best on this meas­ure, with 21 per­cent say­ing they were more con­fid­ent in these banks’ de­cisions than a year ago and 18 per­cent say­ing less (with 57 per­cent say­ing their views haven’t changed).

For all nine oth­er in­sti­tu­tions or groups meas­ured, the share of adults who said they are less con­fid­ent than a year ago ex­ceeded the pro­por­tion who ex­pressed more con­fid­ence. Of­ten this dis­par­ity was over­whelm­ing. For stock brokers, 5 per­cent ex­pressed more con­fid­ence and 32 per­cent less. For in­vest­ment banks, the num­bers were 8 per­cent  more and 31 per­cent less; for in­sur­ance com­pan­ies, 10 per­cent and 34 per­cent; for na­tion­al banks, 9 per­cent and 36 per­cent; for ma­jor cor­por­a­tions, 7 per­cent and 40 per­cent. Re­spond­ents didn’t ex­empt them­selves and their neigh­bors either: Just 13 per­cent ex­pressed more con­fid­ence in the “Amer­ic­an con­sumer,” com­pared with 30 per­cent who are less con­fid­ent.

But, by far, the loudest roar of dis­ap­prov­al was aimed at “elec­ted of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton.” Just 4 per­cent said they had more con­fid­ence in their de­cisions than a year ago; fully 70 per­cent said they had less. That con­tin­ues a steady rise in the share of adults re­port­ing di­min­ish­ing con­fid­ence in elec­ted of­fi­cials to make de­cisions that be­ne­fit the pub­lic: The pro­por­tion ex­press­ing such doubts has in­creased all five times the Heart­land Mon­it­or has asked this ques­tion since Septem­ber 2009, rising stead­ily from just over half that first time. “I don’t want to sound too ex­treme, but I’m def­in­itely less con­fid­ent than I was a year ago about them mak­ing any de­cision, really,” said Wickander, the former Mar­ine. “There’s such a di­vi­sion that to me it feels like a cold civil war — you’ve got two dom­in­ant parties that won’t find agree­ment. They see them­selves as a party first and a na­tion second. It should be a na­tion first and a party second.”

These opin­ions didn’t vary much by edu­ca­tion level or in­come. But those per­sist­ent di­vides ree­m­erged on a fi­nal range of ques­tions that meas­ured broad­er as­sess­ments about the fin­an­cial sys­tem’s work­ings.

One ques­tion probed at­ti­tudes about the po­ten­tial risks and re­wards of 401(k) in­vest­ment plans, which have largely re­placed pen­sion plans that guar­an­teed work­ers a fixed sum upon re­tire­ment. The poll found Amer­ic­ans closely di­vided on wheth­er this shift has brought more costs or be­ne­fits, just as the sur­vey did when it last meas­ured this ques­tion in 2009. In the new poll, 50 per­cent said work­ers are bet­ter off re­ly­ing on the 401(k) plans “rather than de­pend­ing on pen­sion pro­grams from em­ploy­ers or gov­ern­ment,” while 42 per­cent said that, giv­en the volat­il­ity of the stock mar­ket, “it is too risky for people to rely primar­ily on the suc­cess of their per­son­al in­vest­ments to pay for their re­tire­ment.”

That close split masked much wider di­vides along the same lines that defined so much of this sur­vey. While those with four-year col­lege de­grees gave 401(k) plans a 54 per­cent to 38 per­cent thumbs-up, those without them split al­most ex­actly in half; like­wise, while fam­il­ies earn­ing un­der $100,000 di­vided closely, those earn­ing more en­dorsed the shift to­ward self-dir­ec­ted in­vest­ments by about 2-to-1.

That same chasm cut through an over­arch­ing ques­tion about the role of debt and cred­it. The sur­vey asked adults wheth­er in their own lives the abil­ity to “take out loans and have a cred­it card” has ex­pan­ded their op­por­tun­it­ies “by al­low­ing you to make pur­chases you couldn’t af­ford from your in­come at the time” or “re­duced your op­por­tun­it­ies by bur­den­ing you with bills that you couldn’t really af­ford to pay.” The last time the Heart­land Mon­it­or asked that ques­tion, in Oc­to­ber 2011, re­spond­ents split al­most ex­actly in half. This time, more ex­pressed a fa­vor­able view about the role of debt, with 51 per­cent say­ing it had in­creased their op­por­tun­it­ies and 32 per­cent say­ing it had re­duced them.

But those stand­ing on dif­fer­ent rungs of the so­cioeco­nom­ic lad­der con­tin­ued to view debt from very dif­fer­ent per­spect­ives. While about three-fifths of those with at least a four-year de­gree said debt had ex­pan­ded their op­por­tun­it­ies, only about two-fifths of those without one agreed. Sim­il­arly, while more than three-fifths of those earn­ing at least $100,000 viewed debt as en­lar­ging their op­tions, slightly less than half of those earn­ing between $30,000 and $50,000 agreed. Those with de­grees were some­what more pos­it­ive to­ward debt than those without them, even at the same in­come level. Minor­it­ies were also much more skep­tic­al about debt’s value than whites.

The poll’s broad­est meas­ure of at­ti­tudes about the fin­an­cial sys­tem capped the por­trait. In a sum­mary ques­tion, 58 per­cent of those sur­veyed agreed that “par­ti­cip­at­ing in the fin­an­cial sys­tem through sav­ing, in­vest­ing, and ac­quir­ing as­sets like a home, is the safest and most re­li­able way for people like me to provide a se­cure fin­an­cial fu­ture [for my fam­ily].” Only 35 per­cent en­dorsed the neg­at­ive ver­dict that “even if people like me save, in­vest, and ac­quire as­sets like a home, the fin­an­cial sys­tem is too volat­ile, com­plic­ated, and un­re­li­able to provide a se­cur­ity fin­an­cial fu­ture for me and my fam­ily.”

Es­pe­cially when com­pared with the en­dem­ic sus­pi­cion of large in­sti­tu­tions that echoes throughout all 19 Heart­land Mon­it­or polls, that’s an un­deni­able vote of con­fid­ence. Yet it ob­scures con­tinu­ing cracks. While whites ex­pressed faith in the fin­an­cial sys­tem by about 2-to-1, minor­it­ies split closely between 49 per­cent pos­it­ive and 43 per­cent neg­at­ive. Among col­lege gradu­ates, those with pos­it­ive views about the sys­tem ex­ceeded those with neg­at­ive as­sess­ments by al­most 3-to-1; among those without de­grees, pos­it­ive re­sponses ex­ceeded neg­at­ive ones by only 50 per­cent to 42 per­cent. Three-fourths of those earn­ing at least $100,000 saw the fin­an­cial sys­tem as the best way to ac­cu­mu­late as­sets and se­cur­ity, but the num­bers dropped to 55 per­cent of those earn­ing between $30,000 and $50,000 and to just 43 per­cent of those earn­ing less than that. “I don’t trust the fin­an­cial sys­tem,” said Kelly Haskell, a Jack­son­ville, Ala., home­maker whose fam­ily in­come has plummeted as her hus­band has en­dured nearly three years without steady work. “I just feel like there is such a di­vide between the rich and the poor, there seems to be not much left of the middle class”¦. Now, it’s just a scary world.”

With the stock mar­ket soar­ing, home prices re­cov­er­ing, and bor­row­ing costs low, this sur­vey sug­gests that Amer­ic­ans with means and cre­den­tials once again see the fin­an­cial sys­tem as a re­li­able chan­nel for achiev­ing their goals. But for many Amer­ic­ans strug­gling to stay afloat after a dec­ade of stag­nant in­comes, the fin­an­cial sys­tem still looms like a cloud on the ho­ri­zon — opaque, un­pre­dict­able, and vaguely men­acing.

Contributions by Michael Mellody and Stephanie Czekalinski

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