The State of the American Dream

By: Jill Mizell

April 28, 2011

Xavier University recently released findings from their second annual American Dream survey.  A plurality (45%) believes that the American Dream is in poor condition, and this pessimism has held steady since last year (44%).  Latinos, Immigrants and People of Color are more optimistic than the overall population.  While 31 percent of the overall population gives a high rating on the condition of the American dream (score of 6-10 out of 10), nearly half of Latinos (47%), and four in ten Immigrants (42%) and People of Color (also 42%) rate the condition of the American dream highly.  African Americans (27%) are far more likely than the general population (14%) to report that the American Dream is in the “worst possible condition,” and have demonstrated a substantial increase over last year in percentage reporting that the country is “seriously on the wrong track” (approximately 33% in 2010, 61% in 2011).

Despite general pessimism, 63 percent of the general population is extremely or fairly confident in their own ability to achieve the American Dream, and three quarters (75%) agree that they have achieved some measure of the Dream.  African Americans are losing confidence, with fewer reporting in that they are “extremely confident” in the ability to reach the American dream in 2011 (27%) than in 2010 (40%).

The percent of Americans who say it is harder for them to attain the Dream than it was for their parents is on the rise, from 60% in 2010 to 69% currently.  When forced to choose between four different options, over a quarter (27%) of respondents cite “declining standard of living and less economic opportunity” as the biggest obstacle, and nearly a quarter (24%) blame leaders of important institutions for failing to make difficult decisions.  Opinion that achieving the dream will be “much harder” for the next generation passed the 50% threshold this year – from 45% in 2010 to 52% in 2011 – for which people are most likely to blame the educational system (19% of respondents) or declining sense of hard work and responsibility (also 19% of respondents), when confronted with six different options.  A substantial percent do recognize structural economic issues, with 16 percent agreeing that there are fewer economic opportunities for the next generation, and 13 percent asserting that competition from foreign countries will make things more difficult for the next generation.

How people define the American Dream is shifting.  When allowed to choose two options out of eight, “providing a good life for my family” continues to be the way most people define the dream, although there has been a 25% increase (9 percentage points) in respondents who agree with this since last year (36% in 2010, 45% in 2011).  More Americans are defining the dream in terms of financial security (29% in 2010, 34% in 2011), and fewer are defining it in terms of opportunity (35% in 2010, 29% in 2011) and homeownership (13% in 2010, 7% in 2011). Defining the American Dream in terms of providing a good life for family is especially resonant among Immigrants.

In addition, Americans are showing a high level of distrust in important institutions, both public and private.  When asked to compare things now to ten or 15 years ago, large majorities of Americans assert that they have much or somewhat less trust for politics in general (83% total, 58% “much” less trust), big business and major corporations (79% total, 51% “much” less trust) and government (78% total, 50% “much” less trust).  Majorities continue to believe America is in decline, and markedly fewer people agree that America is “on the rise” (32% in 2010, 23% in 2011).

Despite the distrust, the latest Community Voices for the Economy survey conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Ms. Foundation for Women shows that the public continues to support the role of government in expanding opportunity, now more than ever.  A majority (54%) agree that now is the time for government to take on a greater role in ensuring that the economy works for the average American.  Just 36 percent agree with the opposite – that turning to “big government” will do more harm than good.  The focus is on jobs, with 62 percent agreeing that the government should work to create jobs, even if the deficit increases in the short term.  Half of Americans (49%) are either very or extremely concerned that the focus on deficit reduction at the expense of program spending will have a negative impact on government funded programs that help children and families.