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Still Paddling Alone

by Ronald Brownstein   |   January 27, 2016



The rising tide hasn’t lif­ted enough boats.

That’s the dom­in­ant mes­sage from the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll, which com­pares Amer­ic­ans’ at­ti­tudes both on their cur­rent fin­an­cial cir­cum­stances and on the eco­nomy’s long-term tra­ject­ory to their views right after the Great Re­ces­sion in 2008 and 2009.

The sur­vey found that since the depths of that severe down­turn, Amer­ic­ans’ per­cep­tion of their eco­nom­ic situ­ation has im­proved mod­estly—at least on some meas­ures. But on oth­er fronts, those judg­ments have not brightened at all, des­pite years of steady job growth and a sub­stan­tial rise in the stock mar­ket since its low point, even after the cas­cad­ing re­cent de­clines.

More im­port­antly, the sur­vey found, Amer­ic­ans re­main deeply un­easy about the eco­nomy’s long-term trends. A sol­id ma­jor­ity of adults say they face great­er risks than their par­ents did, and few­er than half be­lieve they en­joy more op­por­tun­it­ies than earli­er gen­er­a­tions. Only one-third say they be­lieve chil­dren today will have more op­por­tun­ity to get ahead as adults than work­ers do now, with whites es­pe­cially down­beat. And while most Amer­ic­ans still say their fate is de­term­ined mainly by their own ef­forts, re­spond­ents split al­most ex­actly on wheth­er “any­one who works hard” can still suc­ceed in the United States or, con­versely, wheth­er the eco­nomy “mostly re­wards the rich” and makes “it dif­fi­cult for av­er­age people to get ahead.” Each of these ver­dicts has changed sur­pris­ingly little since the nadir of the down­turn; on sev­er­al of these ques­tions, the bal­ance has tilted slightly fur­ther to­ward pess­im­ism.

These find­ings un­der­score the ex­tent to which the 2008 down­turn—and the slow, un­evenly dis­trib­uted re­cov­ery that has marked its af­ter­math—crys­tal­lized for many Amer­ic­ans a new nor­mal, one that presents them with re­duced eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity and heightened risk even while it provides them with new op­por­tun­it­ies and flex­ib­il­ity. In the poll, a sol­id ma­jor­ity of adults still say they be­lieve they are liv­ing the Amer­ic­an dream. But it’s clear that they be­lieve achiev­ing it has be­come a much more com­plex, de­mand­ing, and un­for­giv­ing puzzle.

“There’s a lot more turnover and less se­cur­ity in the job mar­ket than when my par­ents were my age, when people would get a job with a com­pany and they would stay there un­til they re­tired,” said Merissa Coulbourn, a 45year-old per­son­al as­sist­ant in Fort Worth, Texas, who re­spon­ded to the sur­vey. “[But] the same thing that causes less se­cur­ity and sta­bil­ity in jobs is the same thing that makes it easi­er to get ahead. Com­pan­ies are will­ing to move to someone dif­fer­ent if they seem to of­fer more. If you’re per­sist­ent and will­ing to be ag­gress­ive, it’s easi­er to get out there and fight for jobs and make your way.”

The poll’s res­ults also il­lu­min­ate the tur­moil evid­ent in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race, which will form­ally be­gin with the Iowa caucuses next week. The broad con­sensus that the eco­nomy now ex­poses work­ers to more risk and com­plic­ates the task of get­ting ahead helps to ex­plain why gains on many con­ven­tion­al eco­nom­ic meas­ures haven’t done more to im­prove the na­tion­al mood: More than three-fifths of Amer­ic­ans in the sur­vey say the coun­try is on the wrong track. The poll res­ults—whichNa­tion­al Journ­al and The At­lantic will re­port in a series of stor­ies over the next week—also cap­ture sharp par­tis­an, ra­cial, and gen­er­a­tion­al dif­fer­ences on cru­cial pub­lic-policy choices, ran­ging from gov­ern­ment’s prop­er role in the eco­nomy to im­mig­ra­tion, for­eign trade, and Pres­id­ent Obama’s sig­na­ture health-care law.

This latest Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll marks the 25th sur­vey con­duc­ted in the series, which began in April 2009. For this sur­vey, we have re­prised some of the most im­port­ant ques­tions asked in earli­er polls, mostly from their first two years, to doc­u­ment how Amer­ic­an at­ti­tudes have changed, or haven’t, since the depths of the down­turn.

Since then, the eco­nomy has un­deni­ably re­gained ground on many fronts. Com­pared to April 2009, the eco­nomy has gen­er­ated nearly 11.5 mil­lion more jobs, and the un­em­ploy­ment rate has plummeted from 9 per­cent to 5 per­cent. The Dow Jones In­dus­tri­al Av­er­age, even after its re­cent losses, has in­creased from 7,762 on April 1, 2009, to more than 16,000 on Monday. Con­sumers bought about 1 mil­lion more new homes in 2015 than in 2009, while an­nu­al new-car sales nearly doubled.

But on the oth­er side of the ledger, the share of Amer­ic­ans liv­ing in poverty was slightly high­er in 2014 (the latest year for which fed­er­al census fig­ures are avail­able) than in 2009. The me­di­an in­come has re­mained vir­tu­ally un­changed—in fact, it is lower now than when Pres­id­ent Clin­ton left of­fice, a 15-year peri­od of stag­na­tion that may be un­pre­ced­en­ted (the data is in­com­plete) in Amer­ic­an his­tory.

In in­ter­views with poll re­spond­ents, the dif­fi­culty of climb­ing the in­come lad­der loomed heav­ily over their as­sess­ments of the eco­nomy. “The thing that seems most ob­vi­ous to me are wages,” says Scott Brack­en-Tripp, a 27-year-old freel­ance artist in Miami. “Wages are not in­creas­ing for me or my par­ents. We don’t ever see big wage in­creases year to year, but we see the cost of liv­ing go up sig­ni­fic­antly from year to year. Just be­ing suc­cess­ful for people in the middle class is get­ting more dif­fi­cult every year.”

Risky Times

The most power­ful note in the poll may be the sense that Amer­ic­ans are op­er­at­ing in a new eco­nom­ic era that denies them the cer­tain­ties avail­able to earli­er gen­er­a­tions and forces them to fend for them­selves in more tur­bu­lent fin­an­cial wa­ters—in ef­fect, to paddle alone.

In the sur­vey, 57 per­cent of those polled said that, com­pared to their par­ents at the same age, the eco­nomy today presents them “with more risks that en­danger your stand­ard of liv­ing.” Just 11 per­cent said the eco­nomy now presents them with few­er risks than their par­ents faced, and 27 per­cent said things haven’t changed. These res­ults were only slightly more op­tim­ist­ic than the find­ing in April 2009, when the eco­nomy was still reel­ing from the crash in the hous­ing and stock mar­kets. At that time, 64 per­cent said the eco­nomy presen­ted them with more risks, 11 per­cent saw few­er risks, and 22 per­cent didn’t see any change.

The con­sensus that the eco­nomy today poses more risk is broadly shared across gen­er­a­tion­al lines. About three-fifths of baby boomers, Gen­er­a­tion Xers, and mil­len­ni­als say they face great­er threats to their eco­nom­ic well-be­ing than their par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion did. (Only adults who be­long to the Si­lent Gen­er­a­tion and older—born be­fore the mid-1940s—were less likely to agree.) Men and wo­men were equally likely to say they en­counter more risk. Slightly more whites than Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans or His­pan­ics say they face great­er risks than their par­ents did, al­though that gap has ac­tu­ally nar­rowed since 2009, as the pro­por­tion of blacks who say the eco­nomy has grown ris­ki­er in­creased from about two-fifths to just over half.

At­ti­tudes to­ward op­por­tun­ity have ac­tu­ally de­teri­or­ated a bit since 2009, the new poll found. In Ju­ly 2009, 54 per­cent of adults said they have “more op­por­tun­it­ies to get ahead” than their par­ents had. In the new poll, that slipped to 44 per­cent. An­oth­er 29 per­cent said they have few­er op­por­tun­it­ies to ad­vance (up from 18 per­cent in 2009), and the re­main­ing 25 per­cent said they con­sidered their op­por­tun­it­ies the same (es­sen­tially un­changed from 2009).

Get­ting Ahead

This ques­tion about op­por­tun­ity showed a sharp ra­cial di­vide. More than two-thirds of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and nearly three-fifths of His­pan­ics say they have more op­por­tun­it­ies to get ahead than their par­ents did (in each case, a de­cline since 2009 with­in the mar­gin of er­ror). Their gen­er­ally pos­it­ive ver­dict may say as much about how blacks and His­pan­ics view the open­ing of pre­vi­ously closed doors as about trends in the un­der­ly­ing eco­nomy. “Based on the stor­ies from back then, I have to be­lieve I’m do­ing a lot bet­ter than my grand­par­ents or my mom back in the ’60s,” said Cori Gilmore, a 33year-old black jew­elry de­sign­er in Green­ville, Mis­sis­sippi. “Speak­ing from the ex­per­i­ence of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans back in the day, there wer­en’t a lot of job op­por­tun­it­ies that were avail­able. … My momma was a single par­ent, and I re­mem­ber a lot of times when there was noth­ing avail­able for her to do. For a moth­er like me who’s a single par­ent, I can start my own busi­ness. I can in­vest in my­self. There’s so much more avail­able than there was be­fore.”

But whites took a much bleak­er view on the avail­ab­il­ity of op­por­tun­ity. Just 36 per­cent of whites say they have more op­por­tun­it­ies than their par­ents did, down sharply from 49 per­cent in 2009, while 33 per­cent—up from 20 per­cent—be­lieve op­por­tun­it­ies have dwindled. (The oth­er 29 per­cent saw no change.) Not sur­pris­ingly, whites without a col­lege de­gree ex­press such un­ease, hav­ing faced years of stag­nat­ing wages; but the poll found little more op­tim­ism among col­lege-edu­cated whites—by most meas­ures, the group at the top of Amer­ica’s eco­nom­ic pyr­am­id.

Re­sponses also showed a clear di­vide by gen­er­a­tion. Among mil­len­ni­als, 55 per­cent be­lieve that their op­por­tun­it­ies are great­er than their par­ents had. But among every­one else—mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion X, the baby-boom gen­er­a­tion, and the Si­lent Gen­er­a­tion and older—only about two-fifths of re­spond­ents felt the same.

The di­vi­sions were sim­il­ar on the re­lated ques­tion of wheth­er today’s chil­dren will have great­er or less op­por­tun­ity to get ahead than today’s adults do. On that core meas­ure of op­tim­ism about the fu­ture, re­spond­ents di­vided al­most ex­actly in­to thirds, just as they did in Ju­ly 2009. In the new poll, 32 per­cent ex­pect more op­por­tun­ity for chil­dren, 33 per­cent ex­pect less, and 28 per­cent didn’t fore­see any change.

At­ti­tudes since 2009 have grown slightly more op­tim­ist­ic among whites and de­teri­or­ated some­what among minor­it­ies. Even so, blacks and His­pan­ics re­main con­sid­er­ably more likely than whites to say that the next gen­er­a­tion will en­joy more op­por­tun­it­ies. In fact, the pro­por­tion of whites who ex­pect today’s kids to ex­per­i­ence few­er op­por­tun­it­ies (37 per­cent) ex­ceeded the share that ex­pects op­por­tun­ity to grow (28 per­cent). Strik­ingly, col­lege-edu­cated whites are not­ably less op­tim­ist­ic than whites without ad­vanced edu­ca­tion. And once again, mem­bers of the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion were much more likely than older gen­er­a­tions to ex­pect op­por­tun­it­ies to rise for today’s chil­dren.

Feel­ing Squeezed

Not­with­stand­ing these clear pat­terns, in­ter­views with poll re­spond­ents of all ages of­ten found nu­anced views. While al­most every­one agreed that Amer­ic­ans today face more un­cer­tainty than be­fore, most re­spond­ents also be­lieve the eco­nomy is provid­ing new op­tions—even if it re­quires more flex­ib­il­ity and a great­er ac­cept­ance of risk to seize them.

Listen to Carl Sten­holm, a 61-year old busi­ness con­sult­ant in Cape Cor­al, Flor­ida, who used to work at a power plant. “I think there’s plenty of ways to get ahead, but you have to be a little more [cre­at­ive],” he said. “The com­pany my dad worked for, they had their own coun­try club and golf course for em­ploy­ees, and on and on. You ex­pec­ted to work for the same com­pany for the rest of your life. Your dream was to work away, nose to the grind­stone, work your way up. Today, we don’t work for cor­por­a­tions. Ba­sic­ally what you need to do is net­work and have a group of as­so­ci­ates or friends that you work with.”

Many re­spond­ents lamen­ted that a squeeze between rising costs and slowly grow­ing in­comes has nar­rowed the road to fin­an­cial se­cur­ity. “I can’t save as much money as my par­ents did be­cause there are so many more costs in­volved,” said Jes­sica, a 41-year-old nurse in Phil­adelphia, who asked not to use her last name. “I’m not ex­per­i­en­cing sig­ni­fic­ant debt oth­er than my mort­gage and school pay­ments. However, I’m not sav­ing very much money. I do put in­to re­tire­ment, but I don’t put away what I’d like to. My sav­ings ac­count is not where I’d prefer it to be. I’m not put­ting enough away for my child’s edu­ca­tion after high school.”

That frus­tra­tion in­fuses the nearly even split the poll found on a key ques­tion about wheth­er Amer­ic­ans can con­tin­ue to rise. While 49 per­cent agreed that “Any­one who works hard still has a fair chance to suc­ceed and live a com­fort­able life in today’s Amer­ica,” nearly as many—48 per­cent—found more truth in the glum state­ment that “Today’s eco­nomy mostly re­wards the rich, and it’s dif­fi­cult for av­er­age people to get ahead.” Com­pared to Ju­ly 2009, that marked slightly less op­tim­ism and cor­res­pond­ingly more pess­im­ism. The res­ults differed only mod­estly across ra­cial, edu­ca­tion­al, and gen­er­a­tion­al lines. Among most demo­graph­ic groups, the views split close to 50-50, al­though male re­spond­ents and those in the Si­lent Gen­er­a­tion and older were slightly more likely to say that any­one can suc­ceed. Not sur­pris­ingly, people in house­holds earn­ing $30,000 or less were most likely to say the deck is stacked, while those in house­holds earn­ing $100,000 or more were most likely to be­lieve that ef­fort is re­war­ded. But all of the in­come groups in between, across the heart of the middle class, are closely di­vided.

On one side are people like George Dodd, a 37-year-old elec­tron­ics tech­ni­cian in Bossi­er, Louisi­ana. He has seen more fam­il­ies in his neigh­bor­hood fa­cing eco­nom­ic re­versals—and ex­per­i­enced it him­self, when he was par­tially un­em­ployed last year. But he be­lieves suc­cess is still with­in reach for those who pur­sue it. “It’s not that people don’t have op­por­tun­ity, it’s that they’ve been taught they don’t,” he says. “They have the ex­act same op­por­tun­it­ies pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions had, if not more, but people aren’t edu­cated to go find it. You’ve got a vic­tim men­tal­ity be­ing taught at the grade-school level in some places, and it’s even worse when you get to col­lege.”

On the oth­er side are re­spond­ents like Brack­en-Tripp, the young Miami artist. “What you start out with plays a huge role in how suc­cess­ful you’re able to be,” he says. “I think per­haps there was a time when you could start with just about noth­ing and get ahead, but now I think that’s vir­tu­ally im­possible.”

Is­sues of Amer­ic­an iden­tity and na­tion­al se­cur­ity have dom­in­ated the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race so far. But it’s dif­fi­cult to ima­gine that, be­fore Novem­ber, the race won’t zero in on these ques­tions about op­por­tun­ity for today’s work­ers and their chil­dren: Can enough Amer­ic­ans still scale the lad­der of suc­cess? And, what is the best way to help those who are strug­gling to climb bey­ond the low­est rungs?

Na­tion­al Journ­al data journ­al­ist Janie Boschma con­trib­uted.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 25th in a series ex­amin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll re­prises cent­ral ques­tions that the sur­vey ex­plored, mostly in its first two years, to doc­u­ment how Amer­ic­an at­ti­tudes have changed since the Great Re­ces­sion. It sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones from Jan. 2 to Jan. 6 and has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points. The sur­vey was su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy and Joseph McMa­hon of FTI Con­sult­ing’s stra­tegic com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice.

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