America's Persistent Economic Gloom

Even though the country's outlook is strong, a new poll shows that people’s feeling of pessimism have deepened.

Economic tides have turned, but not all boats have risen with them. (Ivan Milutinovic / Reuters)

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.

“There’s a lot more turnover and less security in the job market than when my parents were my age, when people would get a job with a company and they would stay there until they retired,” said Merissa Coulbourn, a 45-year-old personal assistant in Fort Worth, Texas, who responded to the survey. “[But] the same thing that causes less security and stability in jobs is the same thing that makes it easier to get ahead. Companies are willing to move to someone different if they seem to offer more. If you’re persistent and willing to be aggressive, it’s easier to get out there and fight for jobs and make your way.”

The poll’s results also illuminate the turmoil evident in the 2016 presidential race, which will formally begin with the Iowa caucuses next week. The broad consensus that the economy now exposes workers to more risk and complicates the task of getting ahead helps to explain why gains on many conventional economic measures haven’t done more to improve the national mood: More than three-fifths of Americans in the survey say the country is on the wrong track. The poll results—which National Journal and The Atlantic will report in a series of stories over the next week—also capture sharp partisan, racial, and generational differences on crucial public-policy choices, ranging from government’s proper role in the economy to immigration, foreign trade, and President Obama’s signature health-care law.

This latest Heartland Monitor Poll marks the 25th survey conducted in the series, which began in April 2009. For this survey, we have reprised some of the most important questions asked in earlier polls, mostly from their first two years, to document how American attitudes have changed, or haven’t, since the depths of the downturn.

Since then, the economy has undeniably regained ground on many fronts. Compared to April 2009, the economy has generated nearly 11.5 million more jobs, and the unemployment rate has plummeted from 9 percent to 5 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, even after its recent losses, has increased from 7,762 on April 1, 2009, to more than 16,000 on Monday. Consumers bought about 1 million more new homes in 2015 than in 2009, while annual new-car sales nearly doubled.

But on the other side of the ledger, the share of Americans living in poverty was slightly higher in 2014 (the latest year for which federal census figures are available) than in 2009. The median income has remained virtually unchanged—in fact, it is lower now than when President Clinton left office, a 15-year period of stagnation that may be unprecedented (the data is incomplete) in American history.

In interviews with poll respondents, the difficulty of climbing the income ladder loomed heavily over their assessments of the economy. “The thing that seems most obvious to me are wages,” says Scott Bracken-Tripp, a 27-year-old freelance artist in Miami. “Wages are not increasing for me or my parents. We don’t ever see big wage increases year to year, but we see the cost of living go up significantly from year to year. Just being successful for people in the middle class is getting more difficult every year.”

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The most powerful note in the poll may be the sense that Americans are operating in a new economic era that denies them the certainties available to earlier generations and forces them to fend for themselves in more turbulent financial waters—in effect, to paddle alone.

In the survey, 57 percent of those polled said that, compared to their parents at the same age, the economy today presents them “with more risks that endanger your standard of living.” Just 11 percent said the economy now presents them with fewer risks than their parents faced, and 27 percent said things haven’t changed. These results were only slightly more optimistic than the finding in April 2009, when the economy was still reeling from the crash in the housing and stock markets. At that time, 64 percent said the economy presented them with more risks, 11 percent saw fewer risks, and 22 percent didn’t see any change.

The consensus that the economy today poses more risk is broadly shared across generational lines. About three-fifths of baby boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials say they face greater threats to their economic well-being than their parents’ generation did. (Only adults who belong to the Silent Generation and older—born before the mid-1940s—were less likely to agree.) Men and women were equally likely to say they encounter more risk. Slightly more whites than African Americans or Hispanics say they face greater risks than their parents did, although that gap has actually narrowed since 2009, as the proportion of blacks who say the economy has grown riskier increased from about two-fifths to just over half.

Attitudes toward opportunity have actually deteriorated a bit since 2009, the new poll found. In July 2009, 54 percent of adults said they have “more opportunities to get ahead” than their parents had. In the new poll, that slipped to 44 percent. Another 29 percent said they have fewer opportunities to advance (up from 18 percent in 2009), and the remaining 25 percent said they considered their opportunities the same (essentially unchanged from 2009).

This question about opportunity showed a sharp racial divide. More than two-thirds of African Americans and nearly three-fifths of Hispanics say they have more opportunities to get ahead than their parents did (in each case, a decline since 2009 within the margin of error). Their generally positive verdict may say as much about how blacks and Hispanics view the opening of previously closed doors as about trends in the underlying economy. “Based on the stories from back then, I have to believe I’m doing a lot better than my grandparents or my mom back in the ’60s,” said Cori Gilmore, a 33-year-old black jewelry designer in Greenville, Mississippi. “Speaking from the experience of African Americans back in the day, there weren’t a lot of job opportunities that were available. … My momma was a single parent, and I remember a lot of times when there was nothing available for her to do. For a mother like me who’s a single parent, I can start my own business. I can invest in myself. There’s so much more available than there was before.”

But whites took a much bleaker view on the availability of opportunity. Just 36 percent of whites say they have more opportunities than their parents did, down sharply from 49 percent in 2009, while 33 percent—up from 20 percent—believe opportunities have dwindled. (The other 29 percent saw no change.) Not surprisingly, whites without a college degree express such unease, having faced years of stagnating wages; but the poll found little more optimism among college-educated whites—by most measures, the group at the top of America’s economic pyramid.

Responses also showed a clear divide by generation. Among millennials, 55 percent believe that their opportunities are greater than their parents had. But among everyone else—members of Generation X, the baby-boom generation, and the Silent Generation and older—only about two-fifths of respondents felt the same.

The divisions were similar on the related question of whether today’s children will have greater or less opportunity to get ahead than today’s adults do. On that core measure of optimism about the future, respondents divided almost exactly into thirds, just as they did in July 2009. In the new poll, 32 percent expect more opportunity for children, 33 percent expect less, and 28 percent didn’t foresee any change.

Attitudes since 2009 have grown slightly more optimistic among whites and deteriorated somewhat among minorities. Even so, blacks and Hispanics remain considerably more likely than whites to say that the next generation will enjoy more opportunities. In fact, the proportion of whites who expect today’s kids to experience fewer opportunities (37 percent) exceeded the share that expects opportunity to grow (28 percent). Strikingly, college-educated whites are notably less optimistic than whites without advanced education. And once again, members of the millennial generation were much more likely than older generations to expect opportunities to rise for today’s children.

Notwithstanding these clear patterns, interviews with poll respondents of all ages often found nuanced views. While almost everyone agreed that Americans today face more uncertainty than before, most respondents also believe the economy is providing new options—even if it requires more flexibility and a greater acceptance of risk to seize them.

Listen to Carl Stenholm, a 61-year old business consultant in Cape Coral, Florida, who used to work at a power plant. “I think there’s plenty of ways to get ahead, but you have to be a little more [creative],” he said. “The company my dad worked for, they had their own country club and golf course for employees, and on and on. You expected to work for the same company for the rest of your life. Your dream was to work away, nose to the grindstone, work your way up. Today, we don’t work for corporations. Basically what you need to do is network and have a group of associates or friends that you work with.”

Many respondents lamented that a squeeze between rising costs and slowly growing incomes has narrowed the road to financial security. “I can’t save as much money as my parents did because there are so many more costs involved,” said Jessica, a 41-year-old nurse in Philadelphia, who asked not to use her last name. “I’m not experiencing significant debt other than my mortgage and school payments. However, I’m not saving very much money. I do put into retirement, but I don’t put away what I’d like to. My savings account is not where I’d prefer it to be. I’m not putting enough away for my child’s education after high school.”

That frustration infuses the nearly even split the poll found on a key question about whether Americans can continue to rise. While 49 percent agreed that “Anyone who works hard still has a fair chance to succeed and live a comfortable life in today’s America,” nearly as many—48 percent—found more truth in the glum statement that “Today’s economy mostly rewards the rich, and it’s difficult for average people to get ahead.” Compared to July 2009, that marked slightly less optimism and correspondingly more pessimism. The results differed only modestly across racial, educational, and generational lines. Among most demographic groups, the views split close to 50-50, although male respondents and those in the Silent Generation and older were slightly more likely to say that anyone can succeed. Not surprisingly, people in households earning $30,000 or less were most likely to say the deck is stacked, while those in households earning $100,000 or more were most likely to believe that effort is rewarded. But all of the income groups in between, across the heart of the middle class, are closely divided.

On one side are people like George Dodd, a 37-year-old electronics technician in Bossier, Louisiana. He has seen more families in his neighborhood facing economic reversals—and experienced it himself, when he was partially unemployed last year. But he believes success is still within reach for those who pursue it. “It’s not that people don’t have opportunity, it’s that they’ve been taught they don’t,” he says. “They have the exact same opportunities previous generations had, if not more, but people aren’t educated to go find it. You’ve got a victim mentality being taught at the grade-school level in some places, and it’s even worse when you get to college.”

On the other side are respondents like Bracken-Tripp, the young Miami artist. “What you start out with plays a huge role in how successful you’re able to be,” he says. “I think perhaps there was a time when you could start with just about nothing and get ahead, but now I think that’s virtually impossible.”

Issues of American identity and national security have dominated the 2016 presidential race so far. But it’s difficult to imagine that, before November, the race won’t zero in on these questions about opportunity for today’s workers and their children: Can enough Americans still scale the ladder of success? And, what is the best way to help those who are struggling to climb beyond the lowest rungs?

Janie Boschma con­trib­uted to this article.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 25th in a series examin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll, which reprises central questions that the survey explored mostly in its first two years to document how American attitudes have changed since the Great Recession, sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones from Jan. 2 to Jan 6. 2016. The sur­vey has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points. The sur­vey was su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy and Joseph McMahon of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions practice.