Pew-Commissioned Poll Finds Americans Optimistic About Prospects for Economic Mobility Despite the Recession

Pew-Commissioned Poll Finds Americans Optimistic About Prospects for Economic Mobility Despite the Recession

Nearly eight-in-ten Americans believe it is still possible to improve their economic standing and remain optimistic that their family's economic circumstances will improve within their lifetime and across generations.  This is true across racial lines and even among lower-income, less-educated and unemployed people, according to a new national public opinion poll conducted for Pew's Economic Mobility Project by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies.

“Although the current economic crisis seems to be deepening each day and many families are feeling the pinch – either through company layoffs, decreasing home values or loss of retirement savings – Americans are taking a longer-term view,” said John E. Morton, managing director of Economic Policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “We may be struggling in our daily lives, but Americans are confident in themselves and their ability to get ahead in the future.”

The poll found that many Americans said the government currently does more to hurt than help people trying to move up the economic ladder. However, a majority support a wide range of policies the government could adopt to encourage upward economic mobility, such as making college more affordable, investing in early childhood education, making retirement savings easier or providing job training and financial education. In addition, a majority (71 percent) think it is more important for the country to provide people a fair chance of improving their economic standing than it is to reduce inequality in the United States.

“This poll confirms the long-held American belief that hard work and talent brings a just reward, and our society should aim to provide equality of opportunity, not guarantee equality of outcomes,” continued Morton. “These results convey a clear message to policy makers – the solutions to the economic challenges facing American families should focus on promoting opportunity and upward mobility.”

By a 71 to 21 percent margin, Americans said that personal attributes such as hard work and drive are more important to economic mobility than structural issues such as the state of the economy and one's economic circumstances growing up. Similarly, respondents said personal attributes, including poor life choices, taking on too much debt and lack of education, are the factors that are most likely to contribute to someone falling down the income ladder.

Looking to the future, more than two-thirds of people (72 percent) believe that their personal economic circumstances will be better in the next ten years than they are today and most parents say their own children will have a higher standard of living than they had (62 percent). Notably, Americans largely define the American Dream as freedom to accomplish anything you want with hard work or having future generations be better off than their parents. “Becoming rich” was one of the lowest ranked definitions of the American Dream.

African Americans are the most optimistic group about their and their children's opportunities for economic mobility. Eighty-five percent believe their economic circumstances will be better in 10 years than they are now, compared to 71 percent of whites and 77 percent of Hispanics. When asked whether their children would have an easier or harder time moving up the income ladder, whites are the most pessimistic, with 54 percent saying it will be harder to move up the income ladder, compared to 34 percent of African Americans and 41 percent of Hispanics.

“This research shows that Americans throughout our diverse society have an abiding faith in their ability to get ahead,” said Ianna Kachoris, project manager of Pew's Economic Mobility Project.  “However, our economic analysis has previously reported there are considerable racial gaps in mobility, as well as significant immobility for many Americans at the bottom of the income ladder. People's perception of their ability to get ahead may not necessarily coincide with reality, and special attention should be paid to improving mobility for all Americans.”

Research Specifications:
This research reports on 10 focus groups conducted between January 6 – 15, 2009 in Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix and San Diego among a racially diverse set of panelists. In addition, Pew's Economic Mobility Project commissioned a national survey of 2,119 adults. This survey included oversamples of African Americans (517 total cases unweighted), Hispanics (520 total cases unweighted) and people under 40 (497 total cases unweighted). Given the growing phenomenon of young people without land-line telephones, all interviews in the under-40 oversample were conducted on cell phones. This survey was conducted between January 27 and February 8, 2009 and lasted approximately 22 minutes. The overall margin of error for this survey is +/- 3.4 at a 95 percent confidence interval.