WASHINGTON — Four years into an economic recovery in which most of the benefits have flowed to the top earners, a majority believes that the American Dream is becoming markedly more elusive, according to the results of a Washington Post-Miller Center poll exploring Americans’ changing definition of success and their confidence in the country’s future.
While most Americans still think hard work and education breed opportunity, their faith in a brighter tomorrow has been eroded by intensifying struggles on the job and at home that have led some to conclude that the United States has emerged from the Great Recession a fundamentally changed nation.
Among the poll’s findings:
- It’s increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Almost two-thirds of people express concerns about covering their family’s basic living expenses, compared with less than half the public four decades ago. One in three say their money worries are with them all or most of the time, and the number who say they worry “all the time” about paying the bills has doubled.
- In the workplace, most people think they are running in place. More than half doubt they will get a pay raise or find a better-paying job in the next five years. As it is, 58 percent say they earn less than they deserve. Half of those polled say they have taken training in the past 12 months to maintain or improve their skills, but among that group 72 percent say it hasn’t made much difference in their paychecks.
- Fear of being thrown out of work is greater than it has been in polls taken since the 1970s. More than six in 10 workers worry they will lose their jobs because of the economy. Today’s worries exceed those in 1975, at the tail end of a harsh recession marked by high unemployment and high inflation. Less than half of Americans expect to move up in their economic class over the next few years. Slightly more predict they will stay in place — or slip down a rung.
- As they struggle to keep up, a majority of people question a basic precept of the American Dream: that the next generation will enjoy a higher standard of living. While slightly more than half of respondents, 54 percent, say their standard of living is better than that of their parents, just 39 percent believe their children will have a better life than they have.
“The American Dream is to have your own house with a white picket fence, a dog running around the back yard and a happy family,” said Rachel Bryant, 28, a hairstylist and homemaker in Aurora, Ill. “I do own a home. I have no college debts. I have two kids. I am the American Dream. But it’s not what it used to be. It was a lot easier for my mom and dad to get where they are than my generation. I’m scared to death for my children. They say Social Security is going to be running out. I’m worried to death where the country is going.”
Although the idea of the American Dream can be traced to the Declaration of Independence, the phrase is attributed to historian James Truslow Adams. In his 1931 book, “The Epic of America,” Adams defined it as the “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
That ethos still has meaning in the lives of most people, but the definition is shifting for many.
One element has remained most constant: having the freedom to live life in the way one chooses. Three-quarters say that is “very much” how they understand the American Dream, only a slight drop from a 1986 survey by The Wall Street Journal asking the same question.
Many people also still harbor an enduring faith that hard work is the surest path to success. In the poll, just one-third say it is no guarantee of success, while two-thirds say most people can get ahead financially through effort. In fact, hard work and education are rated far more highly than social connections, growing up wealthy or natural ability as factors leading to financial success.
But many Americans are questioning old assumptions and changing how they define success.
The luster of homeownership, which had been shorthand for the American Dream, is fading, with more than a quarter of all homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their properties are worth. Slightly more than half of current homeowners say owning a house is a cornerstone of the American Dream, down from 80 percent a quarter-century ago.
And while education is still seen as a critical part of getting ahead, the dream of a college degree has lost some of its appeal over three decades. Just over half now say going to college is very much part of the American Dream, down from 68 percent who said this in 1986. More than three-quarters say it has become more difficult to pay for college in the past few years, and over half believe colleges are not doing enough to prepare students to find jobs in today’s economy.
“There are some good jobs in America, but if you don’t have the skills for them you have to go to college, which nobody can afford,” said Phil Barry, 44, an information technician from Spotsylvania, Va. Although he has two years of college education, Barry said he counts himself lucky to have gained most of his job skills during his Army career.
Many Americans say they have not recovered from the recession of 2007 to 2009, according to the poll of 1,509 adults. The survey was a joint project of The Washington Post and the Miller Center, a nonpartisan institute affiliated with the University of Virginia that specializes in public policy, presidential scholarship and political history.
Jim Butterwick, 61, used to own a graphic design and illustration business in Forty Fort, Pa., and was planning an expansion. Then his biggest account sent him a fax telling him his services were no longer needed. He kept the business going for a few years but eventually closed up shop and found a job as a substitute art teacher, making $75 a day. Four years ago, he was hired permanently at a middle school, but with the growth of competing charter schools he does not feel secure.
“I think the safety nets that everybody counts on, like Social Security, are slowly being dismantled,” he said. “We’re told almost every day to lower our expectations. I’m not sure if I can retire at 66. I think I might have to work a lot longer.”
Mary Edwards and her family have gone through a dizzying downward spiral over the past decade. Her husband, an engineer, was laid off. He took a series of increasingly less challenging jobs and now works in a factory doing manual labor, she said. After the stock market crash of 2008 wiped out much of their retirement savings, they depleted what was left to pay medical bills when he became ill, she said. They almost lost their home to foreclosure.
“My dream has gone out the window,” said Edwards, 56, a former stay-at-home mom who re-entered the workforce doing inventory at a firm near her home in Martinsburg, W.Va.
Tracy Knable, 53, who sells collectibles on eBay out of her home in Hagerstown, Md., said it has grown harder to keep up with rising health-care costs on a fixed income since her husband retired from Maryland state government. To help their food budget, Knable has turned her back yard into a vegetable garden, and she plans to build a chicken coop for the eggs and meat.
Although her adult children are doing well, Knable said she thinks this is an era of shrinking opportunities.
“If you go into the service industry, you can’t survive on the pay,” she said. “If you go to college, you have to ask, ‘Am I able to afford the debt?’ ”
Almost eight in 10 Americans say they worry they won’t have enough saved for retirement, concerns that peak among those approaching age 65.
“I hope I die soon enough that I will be able to leave some portion of my estate for my grandchildren’s education, rather than spending it all in a nursing home for six years,” said Phyllis Armstrong 65, a retired legislative analyst who lives in the District of Columbia. “I realize how expensive college is, and how difficult it’s going to be to build up a nest egg, unless you’re at that ultra level.”
Younger Americans, particularly those under 30, are more upbeat about their financial situation and prospects for moving up.
Among those 18 to 29, just as many say they have become more financially secure in recent years as say they have suffered setbacks. Eighty percent expect to rise in social class in the near future. By contrast, among people 30 to 64, twice as many say they are less secure as say they’ve made gains. Hope for moving up in social class drops with age, with just over a quarter of those 50 to 64 expecting to climb higher.
Mitchell Baker, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, believes he will exceed the standard of living provided by his father, who was raised on a dairy farm and now sells insurance. But he thinks it will take both hard work and connections, which he is working on building in Future Farmers of America and his fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho.
“There’s a bright future ahead of me because of the hard work ethics instilled in me by my mom and my dad, and my connections with the FFA and my fraternity,” he said.
Justin Mann watched his parents succeed against long odds and is confident he will maintain the momentum.
Mann, 30, of Birmingham, Ala., said his parents were teenagers when they married. His father joined the Air Force and earned a college degree. Mann, a physician, is the youngest of three children his parents had in quick succession.
“The country’s been through a recession,” said Mann, who bought a house in 2008 and watched its value drop 20 percent in six months. “Me, my peers and the people I work with, everybody has had to make adjustments over the last four years. But on the whole, I think America is a good bet for the future. . . . The short term may have dips and swings, but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve what you want. For my generation, this experience has opened our eyes about the need to prepare for the future and be careful with our investments.”
But for all the optimism of youth, nearly one in six Americans younger than 30 do not believe they will pull ahead financially in the near future.
“I don’t think I have as easy a time of finding a good job as my father did,” said David Borck, 29, who lost his $7,000 a month job as an overseas military contractor earlier this year during sequestration. He now is studying to get his airframe and power plant license in Ashland City, Tenn.
Borck blames the faltering economy on overreliance on government. “People expect the government to do more for them instead of doing for themselves,” he said.
“The American Dream I always was told about in school was you work hard, you study hard and you’ll be able to do whatever you want to do,” he said. “But now you’re given things for doing nothing and you get nothing for working.”
Washington gets the most blame in the poll for the lack of good-paying jobs. Nearly seven in 10 people cite political gridlock as a top culprit, followed by competition from cheap overseas labor. More than half say the Democratic and Republican parties as well as President Barack Obama are not offering effective solutions to help the middle class.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to pin the blame on high executive pay, Wall Street and corporations not investing enough. Republicans are more likely to cite high business taxes and regulations, the cost of health care and American workers themselves.
Ken Reichard has lost trust in the financial industry and Congress. Now 70, he had planned on retiring five years ago. Instead, he is still working as an administrator for the federal government and living in Montgomery County, Md.
Reichard said a financial planner advised him to diversify his retirement portfolio, so he took money out of stocks and bonds and directed it into real estate funds before the market crashed in 2008. Since then, stocks have rebounded, but his real estate investments have not.
“I don’t make anywhere near the money I used to,” said Reichard, who has pared down from five vehicles to two, and even sold the motor home that once figured so prominently in his retirement plans. Inflation and a federal pay freeze that has lasted almost three years have taken their toll on his bottom line. “The American Dream used to be a white picket fence and a house. Now most people are just happy to make the mortgage.”
Reichard said he sees no solutions coming from Washington.
“I blame a lot on Congress,” he said. “The tea party people are not there for solutions; they’re there to screw things up.”
Washington gridlock has taken its toll on the finances of Barry, the IT technician.
When sequestration cuts took effect earlier this year, the IT technician had six days of mandated furlough. And with Congress debating next year’s budget and the threat of a government shutdown, more furlough days are on the horizon, he predicted.
“I don’t see much difference between one party or another,” he said. “Everyone’s standing on principle. They don’t realize you can’t stand on principle if someone else’s principles are 180 degrees from yours. Me and my wife are polar opposites, and we find a way to get along. You can’t just throw a temper tantrum. That’s what Congress is doing. Those guys are playing chicken with my future.”
Washington Post staff writers Tara Bahrampour and Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.