The backdrop for these sober assessments is a darkening of the national mood since President Obama won reelection. The share of Americans who say the country is on the right track reached a four-year high of 41 percent in the Heartland Monitor survey conducted just after his victory in November. But that optimism plummeted in the latest survey to less than three in 10. The number of people who expect the economy to improve over the next year also skidded.
Obama's approval rating dipped as well. Last November, it reached 54 percent, the highest level in a Heartland Monitor survey since summer 2009. In the new survey, slightly more adults said they disapproved than approved of his performance. Congress fared far worse. And when respondents were asked whether key institutions or individuals, from Obama and Congress to big-business leaders, were making life better or worse for the middle class, only local business owners attracted a broadly positive assessment.
The poll reaffirms Americans' enduring confidence that they can better their own circumstances. But the results highlight how much economic anxiety and political alienation still shadow daily life, even after the blackest clouds of the Great Recession have lifted.
Essayist Garrison Keillor defines his fictional Lake Wobegon as a place where all the children are above average. The new poll found that Americans take almost the opposite tack in their self-descriptions, with most placing themselves at the center of the economic ladder. Asked to define their class status on a 5-point scale, just 2 percent identified themselves as upper class and 12 percent as upper-middle class. More respondents placed themselves below the middle: 12 percent said they were lower class, and 26 percent called themselves lower-middle class. By far the largest group — 46 percent — self-identified as middle class.
The sense of belonging to the middle class transcended many objective economic boundaries. Racial differences were relatively muted, with 50 percent of African-Americans, 47 percent of whites, and 39 percent of Hispanics calling themselves middle class. As survey supervisors Jeremy Ruch and Brent McGoldrick note, a plurality of respondents in every educational grouping said they were middle class. So did almost two-thirds of households earning between $50,000 and $100,000. Among households earning $30,000 to $50,000 and among those over $100,000, the share that identified as middle class — just under 45 percent — was almost exactly the same.
Some distinctions emerged when respondents were asked to compare their economic class with that of their parents at the same age. The results showed upward mobility in America in a mixed light at best: 35 percent ranked themselves higher than their parents, 31 percent in the same class, and 29 percent in a lower class. These findings revealed large variations by race and education. Among Hispanics, more respondents said they'd risen above their parents' station than said they had slipped (47 percent to 22 percent). Responses were similar for African-Americans (33 percent to 22 percent) and college-educated whites (38 percent to 35 percent). But among whites without college degrees, more said they had lost ground (36 percent) rather than gained it (29 percent).
Expectations about children diverged along similar lines. As in earlier Heartland Monitor surveys, members of minority groups expressed more optimism about their children's prospects than whites did. While 56 percent of nonwhite respondents said they expected their children to reach the upper class or upper-middle class, just 38 percent of whites agreed. Whites were twice as likely as minorities to say their children would settle in the lower class or lower-middle class and slightly more likely to predict they would reach the middle class. These somber sentiments, as in the earlier Heartland surveys, differed surprisingly little between whites with and without four-year college degrees.