That close split masked much wider divides along the same lines that defined so much of this survey. While those with four-year college degrees gave 401(k) plans a 54 percent to 38 percent thumbs-up, those without them split almost exactly in half; likewise, while families earning under $100,000 divided closely, those earning more endorsed the shift toward self-directed investments by about 2-to-1.
That same chasm cut through an overarching question about the role of debt and credit. The survey asked adults whether in their own lives the ability to "take out loans and have a credit card" has expanded their opportunities "by allowing you to make purchases you couldn't afford from your income at the time" or "reduced your opportunities by burdening you with bills that you couldn't really afford to pay." The last time the Heartland Monitor asked that question, in October 2011, respondents split almost exactly in half. This time, more expressed a favorable view about the role of debt, with 51 percent saying it had increased their opportunities and 32 percent saying it had reduced them.
But those standing on different rungs of the socioeconomic ladder continued to view debt from very different perspectives. While about three-fifths of those with at least a four-year degree said debt had expanded their opportunities, only about two-fifths of those without one agreed. Similarly, while more than three-fifths of those earning at least $100,000 viewed debt as enlarging their options, slightly less than half of those earning between $30,000 and $50,000 agreed. Those with degrees were somewhat more positive toward debt than those without them, even at the same income level. Minorities were also much more skeptical about debt's value than whites.
The poll's broadest measure of attitudes about the financial system capped the portrait. In a summary question, 58 percent of those surveyed agreed that "participating in the financial system through saving, investing, and acquiring assets like a home, is the safest and most reliable way for people like me to provide a secure financial future [for my family]." Only 35 percent endorsed the negative verdict that "even if people like me save, invest, and acquire assets like a home, the financial system is too volatile, complicated, and unreliable to provide a security financial future for me and my family."
Especially when compared with the endemic suspicion of large institutions that echoes throughout all 19 Heartland Monitor polls, that's an undeniable vote of confidence. Yet it obscures continuing cracks. While whites expressed faith in the financial system by about 2-to-1, minorities split closely between 49 percent positive and 43 percent negative. Among college graduates, those with positive views about the system exceeded those with negative assessments by almost 3-to-1; among those without degrees, positive responses exceeded negative ones by only 50 percent to 42 percent. Three-fourths of those earning at least $100,000 saw the financial system as the best way to accumulate assets and security, but the numbers dropped to 55 percent of those earning between $30,000 and $50,000 and to just 43 percent of those earning less than that. "I don't trust the financial system," said Kelly Haskell, a Jacksonville, Ala., homemaker whose family income has plummeted as her husband has endured nearly three years without steady work. "I just feel like there is such a divide between the rich and the poor, there seems to be not much left of the middle class"¦. Now, it's just a scary world."
With the stock market soaring, home prices recovering, and borrowing costs low, this survey suggests that Americans with means and credentials once again see the financial system as a reliable channel for achieving their goals. But for many Americans struggling to stay afloat after a decade of stagnant incomes, the financial system still looms like a cloud on the horizon — opaque, unpredictable, and vaguely menacing.
Stephanie Czekalinski and Michael Mellody contributed to this article