Keeping the American Dream in 2010 Alive

With or without government intervention? Public Opinion and Facts

Following a pro-longed debate over health care reform, a new legislative battle over financial regulation is under the way. What remains consistent in the public discourse and in Washington is the bone of contention: the role of government.

But what is it that we really argue about it? It could be many things such as the wellbeing of the people, the financial health of the country or America's leading role in world politics. In the bigger picture, a lot of what we are arguing and fighting for are embodied in the idea of the American Dream, that "dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" (James Truslow Adams).

The new and first State of the American Dream National Survey (Xavier University Institute for Politics and the American Dream) explores Americans' perception and experience of the Dream today. "What is it exactly, who believes that, what aspirations and values are imagined for this generation and the next?" According to the survey, most define the American Dream as opportunity freedom and family followed by financial security, wealth, a good job and home ownership (see chart below) with variations on opinions by race or immigrant story (1st and 2nd generation immigrants compared to all adults in the U.S.).

Non-whites and recent immigrants define the dream mostly in terms of "tangible markers of financial well-being or a means of attaining the same: opportunity, home ownership, a good job, or wealth itself." White adults "most often associate the Dream with freedom and financial security."

These somewhat different meanings that different groups assigned to the Dream might be the reason that non-whites and immigrants are more positive than whites about the American Dream. Its current state and legacy are scoring low among Americans, but non-whites and immigrants are more positive than whites—the most pessimistic views come specifically by white women, particularly those between 40-64 yrs old, and residents of the Midwest. As FM3 observes in their analysis of the survey results, it is notable that "the part of our society that is still, by and large, worst off in terms of social or economic measurements, is also the same group that is most positive about the American Dream."

The current condition of the Dream scores a mediocre 4.5 in a 10-point scale. "Nearly half of Americans rated the Dream lower than a “5” with nearly a quarter assigning the lowest possible rating. In contrast only 5% awarded the highest possible mark." The legacy of the dream is also scoring low: 65% believe that "it has become harder to reach the American Dream than it was for their parents’ generation" and only one-third feel it is easier.  A large majority are also pessimistic for the future (68%) saying that "it will be harder still for their children to reach the Dream with a stunning 45% believing it will be much harder."

The state of the country vs. the state of the individual
Although the Xavier survey found this "this bleak view of the 'macro' state of the Dream", it also indicated that people have a more optimistic reading of it on an individual level.

The more optimistic look at one's circumstances than the state of the country, or perceptions of situations outside of oneself in general, are commonly observed in the research. On the topic of hard work and opportunity, the Pew Economic Mobility Survey (2009) shows that Americans, even in the midst of the recession, continue to believe that they exercise at least some control over their own economic situation (74%). However, when they are asked about the economic situation of people other than themselves, they think that other Americans do not have such control (55%).

Hard work or circumstances will save the American Dream?
The same survey also shows that"most Americans believe hard work as opposed to luck or circumstances will lead to its achievement; and two-thirds are still at least fairly confident that they will reach the Dream even as they rate its condition mediocre or poor". Americans' fiction on personal responsibility is not a new theme. For the past 40 years, public opinion researchers have been asking the following question: “In your opinion, which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part or circumstances beyond their control?” Americans have been evenly split on this question since 1998, but public opinion on this topic experienced significant fluctuations before that.

Trust in government at all-time low. Should government intervene? Can anyone help us?

According to a March Pew Survey, just 22% say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century. "About the same percentage (19%) says they are 'basically content' with the federal government, which is largely unchanged from 2006 and 2007, but lower than a decade ago".

"Opinions about elected officials are particularly poor. In a follow-up survey in early April, just 25% expressed a favorable opinion of Congress, which was virtually unchanged from March (26%), prior to passage of the health care reform bill. This is the lowest favorable rating for Congress in a quarter century of Pew Research Center surveys. Over the last year, favorable opinions of Congress have declined by half -- from 50% to 25%.

Not surprising, Americans do not highly trust the government or their elected officials. But do they expect them and hope that they find solutions to their problems? Let's talk about financial problems since the topic is at the top of the public's agenda.

Most Americans think that government must have an active role in confronting today's economic problem, although some question its efficacy. In a January 2010 survey (Allstate/National Journal Heartland, Jan 2010),  1 out of 3 say that they "would like to see government PLAY an ACTIVE ROLE in the economy to ensure it benefits people like them, but they are NOT SURE that they can trust government to do this effectively"; and another third of America (29%) think that "the government must play an active role in regulating the marketplace and ensuring that the economy benefits people" like them. Opposed to that idea are about a third of respondents (35%), who say that "the government is the problem not the solution to our economic problems."

However, a majority (62%) say that "it's time for government to take a larger and stronger role in making the economy work for the average American."

Additionally:

  • Direct, publicly funded job creation programs are supported by 71% of voters (Benenson Group, 2009)
  • A majority (51%) believe government should take a more active role in order to provide increased oversight and regulation of private business (Lake Research 2009)
  • 66% of voters support raising income taxes on the wealthy—individuals making $500,000 or more and households making $1 million or more (7 Bloomberg National Poll, Seltzer & Co., Dec. 3-7).

Finally, Americans see "government help as last resort" (Demos/Topos). Americans tend to think that "the objective of government intervention in the economy must be to assist those who are failing in the existing system, like the poor or those who are unable to work."

Read more at The Opportunity Agenda website.

Tags: public opinion, government, Opportunity (all tags)

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