A majority of Americans say that the American Dream is harder than ever to attain – but that they themselves have attained it, or expect to in the future.
That’s the headline finding of a poll on the nation’s perceptions of itself, released Wednesday by The Atlantic and The Aspen Institute. Nearly 70% of Americans told the pollsters that the obstacles to achieving the Dream are “more severe today than ever,” even as 50% said that they had already achieved it, and another 22% said they expected to do so within their lifetime.
The dissonance between how Americans view their nation’s prospects and how they view their own is even more stark when other gauges of satisfaction are taken into account. Eighty-five percent of the poll’s respondents say they are satisfied with their lives; 72% are happy at their jobs; 86% are optimistic about the future.
While those findings may seem to contradict each other, they don’t contradict conventional wisdom about the individualistic optimism of the American people, whose poorest view themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” in John Steinbeck’s famous phrasing.
But beneath the topline figures, the poll offers some major surprises. Here are three findings that challenge popular narratives about how Americans see themselves and their country:
African-Americans have far more faith in the American Dream than Whites
White people own 90% of our nation’s wealth, while African-Americans lay claim a mere 2.6%, according to a 2013 report by the Federal Reserve. And yet, white people are far and away the most pessimistic racial group in the United States.
Only 68% of white Americans said that they have achieved the American Dream or believe that they will someday, compared to 82% of African-Americans and 83% of Latinos. A mere 19% of whites said that the American Dream is alive and well, a percentage 17 points lower than that of any other racial demographic.
White America’s broad pessimism about their nation’s present and future could be explained by a sense of their demographics’ diminishing political power-Barrack Obama won a two-term presidency despite losing the white vote by double digits in both of his elections.
But the fact that white Americans take a dimmer view of their personal prospects than African-Americans is truly strange. Blacks have consistently expressed less satisfaction with their standing than whites throughout the entire history of Gallup’s polling. Seven years after the financial crisis wiped out half of all black wealth, and 10 months since the shooting death of Michael Brown made police violence against black people a fixture of the nightly news, it’s startling to see the vast majority of African-Americans expressing their faith in the American Dream. The result is so aberrant, it’s likely to inspire some skepticism about the poll’s accuracy.
Millennials are materialists who want to move to the suburbs and have kids
If we know anything about the millennial generation, we know that they want a job that offers higher rewards than mere money, love cities, and aren’t too concerned with having kids.
According to the results of this poll, we don’t know anything about millennials.
Respondents under 30 were more likely than any other age group to say that the most essential element of their dream job is that it “pays a lot of money.” And while 22% of respondents over 65 and 19% of those 52-64 said “helping others” was the most important part of their personal American dream, only 14% of millennials said the same.
Further compromising the image of millennials as would-be bohemians, 52% of those under 30 say their dream home would be located in “a family-oriented suburban neighborhood,” while only 24% said they preferred to live in a “vibrant urban” area.
Finally, the poll offers a happy surprise to social conservatives who lament the death of traditional values: Two-thirds of millennials said that marriage and child-rearing are essential to their American Dream – a higher rate than any other age group.
Independents see their country more like Democrats than like Republicans
But while Republicans and Democrats are sharply divided on how they think the government can make the American Dream more accessible – Republicans want to cut taxes, spending and regulations, while Democrats want to expand access to free health care and college – Independents are more closely aligned with Democrats than they are with Republicans.
Independents’ policy prescriptions depart from those of Democrats by only 8 points, while they are 13 to 20 points away from those of Republicans.
If Independents’ are truly leaning left, the electoral consequences could be profound. Of the 2,000 Americans surveyed in the poll, 35% identified as Independent and only 21% as Republican. In the words of the polls’ authors, “Not since Reagan captured many disaffected blue-collar voters has there been such potential for America’s Independents to swing so sharply in one direction.”