The rising tide hasn’t lifted enough boats.
That’s the dominant message from the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, which compares Americans’ attitudes both on their current financial circumstances and on the economy’s long-term trajectory to their views right after the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009.
The survey found that since the depths of that severe downturn, Americans’ perception of their economic situation has improved modestly—at least on some measures. But on other fronts, those judgments have not brightened at all, despite years of steady job growth and a substantial rise in the stock market since its low point, even after the cascading recent declines.
More importantly, the survey found, Americans remain deeply uneasy about the economy’s long-term trends. A solid majority of adults say they face greater risks than their parents did, and fewer than half believe they enjoy more opportunities than earlier generations. Only one-third say they believe children today will have more opportunity to get ahead as adults than workers do now, with whites especially downbeat. And while most Americans still say their fate is determined mainly by their own efforts, respondents split almost exactly on whether “anyone who works hard” can still succeed in the United States or, conversely, whether the economy “mostly rewards the rich” and makes “it difficult for average people to get ahead.” Each of these verdicts has changed surprisingly little since the nadir of the downturn; on several of these questions, the balance has tilted slightly further toward pessimism.
These findings underscore the extent to which the 2008 downturn—and the slow, unevenly distributed recovery that has marked its aftermath—crystallized for many Americans a new normal, one that presents them with reduced economic security and heightened risk even while it provides them with new opportunities and flexibility. In the poll, a solid majority of adults still say they believe they are living the American dream. But it’s clear that they believe achieving it has become a much more complex, demanding, and unforgiving puzzle.