American Dream in Decline?

By Chris Good

The "American Dream" means different things to different people, but according to a new poll from Xavier University Americans think it is increasingly harder to attain, even as they say hard work makes the dream possible.

When asked if it is now harder or easier to attain "the American Dream" than it was for their parents' generation, 60 percent of Xavier's 1,022 respondents said it's getting harder; 68 percent, meanwhile, said it will be even harder for their children than it is for them.

The poll was conducted Feb. 14-21 by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3) for Xavier's Institute for Politics and the American Dream, reaching respondents over 18 years old via land lines and cell phones. Margin of error was +/-3.1 percent. Xavier plans to release a similar poll every year--today's was the first.

Even as people think it's getting harder to achieve the dream, Xavier found, they still believe--more or less--that it's possible with hard work: 35 percent said the American dream is "entirely" dependent on hard work, while 53 percent said it's roughly an even mix of hard work and good luck/circumstances. And 67 percent think they can achieve it in their lifetimes.

Fifty-eight percent, meanwhile, said America itself is in decline.

What does this mean for politics? Think of it as a much more detailed version of Right Direction/Wrong Track polling, and a possible explanation for the strong anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiments shown in generic election polling--a facet, or a motivating factor, in voter dissatisfaction.

The dream is more alive in the minds of some than others, Xavier found: the Midwest gave the most negative assessments, with a small majority thinking they had more control over their own destinies than they did a year ago. White women in the Midwest, particularly, had the bleakest outlook of any group, Xavier reported.

Those who define the dream as financial security gave it its lowest ratings.

But if the dream is being kept alive, it's being done by minority groups: African-Americans, Hispanics, and immigrants gave the highest impressions of the state of the American dream. That's consistent with National Journal polling, which has found African-Americans and Hispanics more likely to believe that children of all races have an equal opportunity in America.

So what is the American dream--the abstract amalgam of what this country means to people? Here's a pictorial representation, in the form of Xavier's bar graph:


American dream.jpgAccording to Xavier, most Hispanics and immigrants associate the dream with opportunity and home ownership; African-Americans associate it most often with wealth; middle-class and middle-aged whites, particularly women, associate it with financial security. Freedom is mentioned most often by men over 50 and more affluent whites.

Thumbnail photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/03/american-dream-in-decline/37472/