The American Dream: Not Doing So Well

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As we gear up for an election season, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, for most people, politics is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Xavier University’s new Institute for Politics and the American Dream is releasing its inaugural survey on the state of the American Dream, something it plans to make an annual exercise. “The purpose of the study is to help define what the dream is and to whom; to measure America’s confidence in itself and the future; and to understand the aspirations and values likely to direct current and future economic, political and cultural decisions,” writes Michael Ford, the institute’s founding director. “Countries do not dream, and the American Dream is not a monolithic idea. But Americans do still dream their dreams, even in these difficult economic times. However, the underlying meaning of and confidence in the American Dream are changing — particularly in terms of the imagined prospects for our children and grandchildren, as well as a declining belief in the idea that America creates the world’s future.”

As you might imagine, given the current state of the economy, most people say the dream is looking farther out of reach. But the survey found some interesting pockets of optimism in our society–namely, African-Americans and immigrants. Here are some of the findings:

• Attaining The Dream Is Harder For This Generation Than Previous Ones. Sixty percent of respondents believe that it has become harder to reach the American Dream than it was for their parents’ generation; only one-third feel that it is easier. And an even greater majority — 68% — say that it will be harder still for their children to reach the Dream with a stunning 45% believing it will be much harder;

• Majority Believe America Is In Decline. A majority think America is now in decline (58% compared to 32% who think the U.S. is on the rise) and a narrow majority who now believes, after the end of the so-called “American Century” and victory in the Cold War, that the world is looking elsewhere in terms of future success or direction;

• Outlook Is Bleak For Those Defining The Dream As Financial Security. The most negative assessments of the Dream come from those defining it in terms of financial security especially among white women living in the Midwest, particularly those 40 to 64 years old. Those using the other common definitions of the Dream — opportunity, freedom and family — have a more mixed view but one that is still largely negative.

• The Industrial Midwest Was The Most Pessimistic Of Any Region In The Country In Terms Of How Much Control Respondents Felt They Had Over Their Own Destiny. A bare majority of respondents felt they had more control over their destiny than people did in the past, while over a third disagreed. By way of comparison, in most other regions people felt they had more control over their destiny than in the past by a two-to-one ratio. Respondents in the industrial Midwest were most likely to associate the American Dream with jobs and other opportunities.

• Not All The News Is Bad: Individuals Are Optimistic About Their Particular Prospects Even If Their “Macro” View Is Negative. While the general view of the Dream is negative, most believe hard work 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.

• New Immigrants, African-Americans and Latinos More Optimistic About Dream. African-Americans, Latinos and 1st or 2nd generation immigrants view the Dream more positively on nearly every measure than do white Americans. Put differently, the part of society that is still by and large worse off in terms of social or economic measurements is also the same group that is most positive about the American Dream.

• African-Americans Were Only Group In Poll That Think Dream Is Getting Easier To Achieve. African-Americans are, in fact, the only key demographic group in our sample where a majority believes that reaching the Dream is easier now than it was for their parents, and over forty percent believe it will be easier for their children to reach than it has been for themselves.

So how’s the dream working out for you these days?