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Two Fears, Dovetailed

by Ronald Brownstein   |   January 28, 2016

In an elec­tion year riv­eted to an un­pre­ced­en­ted ex­tent by changes in the na­tion’s demo­graphy, Amer­ic­ans di­vide al­most ex­actly in half on wheth­er im­mig­ra­tion—and the na­tion’s in­creas­ing di­versity—is mak­ing life in the United States bet­ter or worse, ac­cord­ing to the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll.

The in-depth sur­vey of 1,000 Amer­ic­ans also found that they split al­most evenly on wheth­er the na­tion of­fers chil­dren of all races an ad­equate op­por­tun­ity to suc­ceed. But a sol­id ma­jor­ity of re­spond­ents now re­jects the no­tion that chil­dren from all in­come groups have suf­fi­cient chances to get ahead. And only small minor­it­ies of those polled say the na­tion is do­ing bet­ter at provid­ing equal op­por­tun­ity for all races, all in­come groups, and all gen­er­a­tions.

To­geth­er, these re­sponses cap­ture some of the com­plex and even con­tra­dict­ory emo­tions driv­ing the tur­bu­lent de­bate about the na­tion’s chan­ging iden­tity, one that is rum­bling through the pres­id­en­tial race. The twin con­cerns about the im­pact of grow­ing di­versity and the wan­ing op­por­tun­ity for chil­dren from all in­come groups of­fer more evid­ence that rap­id demo­graph­ic change and a sus­tained eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion have con­verged, pro­du­cing a deeply volat­ile com­pound of anxi­ety.

Apart from the con­cern about the im­pact of im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity on na­tion­al se­cur­ity, which ex­ten­ded broadly through so­ci­ety, many of these ques­tions split Amer­ic­ans along clear and con­sist­ent lines of race, edu­ca­tion, age, and party pref­er­ence.

The per­sist­ence and depth of those fis­sures un­der­score the ex­tent to which at­ti­tudes to­ward the demo­graph­ic trans­form­a­tion that is rap­idly re­mak­ing Amer­ica have be­come a cent­ral fault line between the polit­ic­al parties. The Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion is heav­ily de­pend­ent on the white voters most un­settled by the change, while the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion re­lies mainly on the eth­nic­ally di­verse and urb­an­ized groups most com­fort­able with the new demo­graph­ic and cul­tur­al dy­nam­ics. The one not­able ex­cep­tion to this pat­tern: Afric­an Amer­ic­ans, a solidly Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­ency, ex­press am­bi­val­ence if not out­right un­ease about the im­pact of im­mig­ra­tion and demo­graph­ic change.

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, mainly from their first two years, to doc­u­ment how Amer­ic­an at­ti­tudes have changed, or haven’t, since the depths of the Great Re­ces­sion in 2008 and 2009.

The new res­ults found a sig­ni­fic­ant de­cline since 2009 in the now-bare ma­jor­ity of re­spond­ents who be­lieve that all Amer­ic­ans have suf­fi­cient chances to suc­ceed in life. In the Ju­ly 2009 poll, 65 per­cent of those sur­veyed agreed that “chil­dren from all races grow­ing up today have ad­equate op­por­tun­it­ies to be suc­cess­ful.” That skid­ded to just 51 per­cent in the new sur­vey. The pro­por­tion who said chil­dren from all races did not have suf­fi­cient chances to get ahead jumped from 33 per­cent to 47 per­cent.

The per­cep­tion that all chil­dren can suc­ceed has eroded in all ra­cial groups. Since 2009, it has fallen from about three-fifths to just over half among whites; from about three-fourths to just un­der three-fifths among His­pan­ics; and, most dra­mat­ic­ally, from about three-fourths to just un­der half among Afric­an Amer­ic­ans. The ver­dict var­ies little by gen­er­a­tion, with mem­bers of the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion (at 53 per­cent) about as likely as those from the “Si­lent Gen­er­a­tion”—people born from the mid-1920s in­to the ‘40s—and older (at 55 per­cent) to say chil­dren of all races can get ahead.

Tonya An­gelo, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an cater­er from San Pedro, Cali­for­nia, who is now on dis­ab­il­ity leave, be­lieves op­por­tun­ity is still dis­trib­uted too un­evenly. “All of us [who are] con­sidered minor­it­ies, we’ve been liv­ing at the same level since we were born,” the 38-year-old said. “A lot of us got edu­ca­tion and de­grees and all that and still can’t get a good-pay­ing job. You might have made a mis­take when you were young­er … or you might not know the right per­son to get in­to that place to make that kind of money. A lot of minor­it­ies are hindered for that.”

One group was con­spicu­ously more likely to say that chil­dren from all races can suc­ceed: Re­pub­lic­ans. Sixty-five per­cent of them said so, com­pared to about half of polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ents and only about two-fifths of Demo­crats. Robert Flem­ing, a 33-year-old former in­tel­li­gence work­er in Cicero, New York, was one of those Re­pub­lic­ans. “If you want to work hard, don’t give up, don’t take no for an an­swer, you’ll get some­where,” he said. “The world is not a so­cial ex­per­i­ment. You make your own op­por­tun­it­ies. If you don’t make any, it’s not be­cause of any­body else’s fault. It’s your fault.”

The con­sensus was broad­er, if gloom­i­er, when people were asked to as­sess the na­tion’s ac­tu­al pro­gress in equal­iz­ing op­por­tun­ity for all races. Just 33 per­cent of those sur­veyed said that the United States has been do­ing bet­ter dur­ing the past dec­ade “at provid­ing equal op­por­tun­ity for people” of every race, down sub­stan­tially from 48 per­cent in May 2011. Nearly as many—29 per­cent in the new poll, up from 17 per­cent—said things have grown worse. (A plur­al­ity of 36 per­cent, up from 33 per­cent, saw little change.) Afric­an Amer­ic­ans were slightly more likely than whites or His­pan­ics to see op­por­tun­ity as ex­pand­ing; even so, only two-fifths of blacks saw pro­gress.

At­ti­tudes have also dimmed on the ques­tion of wheth­er the na­tion provides ad­equate op­por­tun­it­ies “for chil­dren from all in­come groups” to suc­ceed. In the new poll, just 40 per­cent said yes, down from 48 per­cent in Ju­ly 2009, while fully 59 per­cent (up from 50 per­cent) said no. The be­lief that chil­dren from all fam­il­ies don’t get an equal shot at suc­cess has grown widely, the new sur­vey found. Only about two-fifths of whites and Afric­an Amer­ic­ans said chil­dren from all in­come groups had suf­fi­cient chance to suc­ceed; His­pan­ics were only slightly more likely (at 45 per­cent) to see pos­it­ive trends. Like­wise, no more than about two-fifths of mil­len­ni­als, Gen­er­a­tion X-ers, and baby boomers saw suf­fi­cient op­por­tun­ity across class lines; only re­spond­ents from the Si­lent Gen­er­a­tion and older were slightly more op­tim­ist­ic (at 50 per­cent).

In a meas­ure of Amer­ic­ans’ con­tinu­ing be­lief in in­di­vidu­al ini­ti­at­ive, re­spond­ents in house­holds with in­comes be­low $50,000 were ac­tu­ally like­li­er than those from wealth­i­er house­holds to be­lieve that chil­dren from all classes had suf­fi­cient op­por­tun­ity to suc­ceed. Like­wise, whites without a col­lege de­gree were more likely to see suf­fi­cient op­por­tun­ity than those with ad­vanced edu­ca­tion. But ma­jor­it­ies of both up­per- and lower-in­come re­spond­ents, and of whites with and without a col­lege de­gree, doubted that chil­dren of every class got enough of a chance to get ahead.

Kar­en Smith, an edu­ca­tion pro­fess­or in Farm­ing­ton, Maine, is among those who be­lieve the evid­ence is now in­dis­put­able that op­por­tun­it­ies aren’t equal across ra­cial and class lines. “Stu­dents that are in the lower ech­el­on do not even come close to reap­ing the be­ne­fits and the op­por­tun­it­ies that are avail­able to the ones who are in the up­per-in­come brack­ets,” she said. “There’s a huge gap and a di­vide. That’s not even my opin­ion. I’m basing that on fact, on data, on evid­ence.”

Asked to as­sess the na­tion’s ac­tu­al pro­gress in ex­tend­ing op­por­tun­ity across class lines, just 21 per­cent of the poll’s re­spond­ents said the United States has been do­ing bet­ter at provid­ing equal op­por­tun­ity across all in­come groups dur­ing the past 10 years. Nearly twice as many—40 per­cent—said the coun­try is do­ing worse, while 36 per­cent saw no change. The ver­dict was com­par­ably cloudy on the na­tion’s pro­gress at equal­iz­ing op­por­tun­ity across all gen­er­a­tions: 27 per­cent saw im­prove­ment, 33 per­cent said the situ­ation is get­ting worse, and 36 per­cent saw no change. Mil­len­ni­als were the like­li­est re­spond­ents to see pro­gress, though only 36 per­cent of them did.

The sense, broadly shared, that the op­por­tun­ity for suc­cess is con­strict­ing provides an im­port­ant back­drop to the di­vided and con­flic­ted re­sponses about the im­pact of im­mig­ra­tion and the ac­cel­er­a­tion in demo­graph­ic di­versity. Already, Amer­ic­ans of col­or, nearly 40 per­cent of the na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion, com­prise a ma­jor­ity of chil­dren young­er than five, and of all stu­dents in pub­lic schools na­tion­wide. Be­fore 2020, they are ex­pec­ted to be­come a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans young­er than 18. This year, for the first time, minor­it­ies could ac­count for 30 per­cent of the na­tion­al elect­or­ate.

After not­ing the “large-scale im­mig­ra­tion” of re­cent years and the fact that “ra­cial and eth­nic minor­it­ies now com­prise more than one-third of the Amer­ic­an pop­u­la­tion,” the poll­sters asked re­spond­ents about the ef­fects on spe­cif­ic as­pects of na­tion­al life and on the coun­try over­all.

The an­swers leaned to­ward the pos­it­ive, on two meas­ures. Fifty per­cent of those polled said im­mig­ra­tion and grow­ing di­versity have had a pos­it­ive ef­fect on Amer­ic­an cul­ture, while only 36 per­cent said the im­pact has been neg­at­ive. Sim­il­arly, 47 per­cent said im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity have im­proved their loc­al com­munity, while only 29 per­cent said the op­pos­ite. But the re­ac­tion was dark­er when ques­tions turned to the eco­nomy—47 per­cent of adults saw the im­pact of im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity as mostly neg­at­ive, versus 36 per­cent who saw it as mostly pos­it­ive. In a meas­ure of how fears of ter­ror­ism are roil­ing the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate, a more de­cis­ive 55 per­cent said im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity have ad­versely af­fected na­tion­al se­cur­ity; just 25 per­cent saw a pos­it­ive ef­fect.

The bot­tom line was a vir­tu­ally even split in opin­ion: 43 per­cent of re­spond­ents said im­mig­ra­tion and grow­ing di­versity have had a pos­it­ive im­pact “on the na­tion over­all,” while 44 per­cent said the im­pact has been mostly neg­at­ive.

The con­cerns about na­tion­al se­cur­ity crossed al­most all demo­graph­ic cat­egor­ies (al­though par­tis­an Demo­crats, mil­len­ni­als, and His­pan­ics were less likely than oth­ers to ex­press anxi­ety). The oth­er ques­tions, however, showed pat­terns of di­ver­gence that are con­sist­ent with the align­ments that now define Amer­ic­an polit­ics.

Core con­stitu­en­cies in the mod­ern Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion viewed these changes in mostly pos­it­ive terms: 61 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als, 57 per­cent of His­pan­ics, and 53 per­cent of col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men, the sur­vey found, said im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity have mostly be­nefited the coun­try.

Ker­ie Ams­den, a 38-year-old white wo­man in Hunter, Mis­souri, who is study­ing for a col­lege de­gree in ad­min­is­tra­tion, be­lieves that im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity are strength­en­ing Amer­ica. “Leg­al im­mig­ra­tion is what our coun­try stands on—it makes us more di­verse, it al­lows us the abil­ity to learn about oth­er people,” she said. “I tell my kids all the time that I feel like their gen­er­a­tion is the one that is go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence in the world, be­cause they don’t see a dif­fer­ence in one per­son or the oth­er be­cause of the col­or of their skin or wheth­er they’re from Mex­ico, Saudi Ar­a­bia, or from Ger­many or any­where else in the world. They learn about that per­son and they real­ize we have things in com­mon, we en­joy the same things, we have the same goals, we have the same val­ues. And they don’t judge them. They judge them by who they are, but not where they’re from or the col­or of their skin.”

In stark con­trast, the be­lief that im­mig­ra­tion be­ne­fits the coun­try over­all was echoed by just 33 per­cent of white men—and 35 per­cent of white wo­men—without a col­lege de­gree and by 33 per­cent of whites over 50; these are all groups that now solidly lean Re­pub­lic­an and make up a big share of the party’s voters in primary elec­tions.

Mike Ben­nett, a 50-year-old con­struc­tion work­er in South San Fran­cisco, is a Re­pub­lic­an who is pas­sion­ate about im­mig­ra­tion. He sees it as an un­al­loyed threat to the na­tion’s se­cur­ity—“I think they should close the bor­ders … es­pe­cially with people com­ing from Syr­ia and Rus­sia”—and also to U.S. prosper­ity. “It’s taken away our jobs,” he said. “We don’t need to take people from Mex­ico and bring them here just to farm. That takes away from our tax dol­lars, hon­estly.”

In all, 61 per­cent of Demo­crats said the im­pact of im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity on the na­tion over­all has mostly been pos­it­ive. Among Re­pub­lic­ans, 69 per­cent found the im­pact mostly neg­at­ive. Col­lege-edu­cated white men (at 43 per­cent pos­it­ive, 45 per­cent neg­at­ive) and polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ents (42 per­cent pos­it­ive, 45 per­cent neg­at­ive) teetered between those two views.

The big an­om­aly: Afric­an Amer­ic­ans ex­pressed much more con­cern about im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity than did oth­er ele­ments of the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion. Oth­er polls in re­cent years have found Afric­an Amer­ic­ans’ anxi­ety over im­mig­ra­tion on the de­cline, but the Heart­land Mon­it­or sur­vey de­tec­ted a clear note of con­cern. While a strong ma­jor­ity of blacks said im­mig­ra­tion has be­nefited their com­munity, slightly less than half saw ad­vant­ages for Amer­ic­an cul­ture. More Afric­an Amer­ic­ans saw neg­at­ive (46 per­cent) than pos­it­ive (38 per­cent) im­pacts on the eco­nomy, and they split al­most evenly (43 per­cent pos­it­ive versus 41 per­cent neg­at­ive) on what it has meant for the na­tion over­all.

Be­hind those broad con­clu­sions of­ten lies an am­bi­val­ence. Jam­ie Wil­li­ams is an Afric­an Amer­ic­an in the Bronx who was re­cently laid off from his job in a ware­house. “I think that every­body de­serves an op­por­tun­ity to bet­ter their life and to provide for their fam­ily,” he said. “If there are people out there who are will­ing to work longer hours and for less pay, if they’re will­ing to do that, God bless them. The last time I checked, I’ve nev­er seen a broke Mex­ic­an. [But] I think it has a neg­at­ive im­pact on the eco­nomy be­cause they’re will­ing to ac­cept lower pay for something that they should be get­ting min­im­um wage for.”

The poll and the fol­low-on in­ter­views also make clear how much the anxi­et­ies about the eco­nomy and about the na­tion’s evolving demo­graph­ics have be­come in­ter­twined. Re­spond­ents who be­lieve that today’s young people will have more op­por­tun­ity than adults do now are mostly pos­it­ive about im­mig­ra­tion and the na­tion’s grow­ing di­versity: 58 per­cent of them say this mostly be­ne­fits the coun­try. Even a plur­al­ity (48 per­cent) of those who be­lieve the next gen­er­a­tion’s op­por­tun­it­ies will re­main un­changed are pos­it­ive about the demo­graph­ic changes. But those who think today’s young people will have few­er op­por­tun­it­ies are deeply pess­im­ist­ic about im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity—63 per­cent of them said the ef­fects are mostly bad.

All of which sug­gests that the na­tion­al wor­ries over eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity and demo­graph­ic change have com­bined, cre­at­ing a mix­ture even more com­bust­ible—for the na­tion’s so­ci­ety, eco­nomy, and polit­ics—than either alone.

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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