Americans Weigh in on the State of Economic Opportunity

A new poll shows there’s a political divide when it comes to how people view who gets ahead in America.

Dr. Marli Miller / Visuals Unlimited / Corbis

In an election year riveted to an unprecedented extent by changes in the nation’s demography, Americans divide almost exactly in half on whether immigration—and the nation’s increasing diversity—is making life in the United States better or worse, according to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll.

The in-depth survey of 1,000 Americans also found that they split almost evenly on whether the nation offers children of all races an adequate opportunity to succeed. But a solid majority of respondents now rejects the notion that children from all income groups have sufficient chances to get ahead. And only small minorities of those polled say the nation is doing better at providing equal opportunity for all races, all income groups, and all generations.

Together, these responses capture some of the complex and even contradictory emotions driving the turbulent debate about the nation’s changing identity, one that is rumbling through the presidential race. The twin concerns about the impact of growing diversity and the waning opportunity for children from all income groups offer more evidence that rapid demographic change and a sustained economic stagnation have converged, producing a deeply volatile compound of anxiety.

Apart from the concern about the impact of immigration and diversity on national security, which extended broadly through society, many of these questions split Americans along clear and consistent lines of race, education, age, and party preference.

The persistence and depth of those fissures underscore the extent to which attitudes toward the demographic transformation that is rapidly remaking America have become a central fault line between the political parties. The Republican coalition is heavily dependent on the white voters most unsettled by the change, while the Democratic coalition relies mainly on the ethnically diverse and urbanized groups most comfortable with the new demographic and cultural dynamics. The one notable exception to this pattern: African Americans, a solidly Democratic constituency, express ambivalence if not outright unease about the impact of immigration and demographic change.

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, mainly from their first two years, to document how American attitudes have changed, or haven’t, since the depths of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009.

The new results found a significant decline since 2009 in the now-bare majority of respondents who believe that all Americans have sufficient chances to succeed in life. In the July 2009 poll, 65 percent of those surveyed agreed that “children from all races growing up today have adequate opportunities to be successful.” That skidded to just 51 percent in the new survey. The proportion who said children from all races did not have sufficient chances to get ahead jumped from 33 percent to 47 percent.

The perception that all children can succeed has eroded in all racial groups. Since 2009, it has fallen from about three-fifths to just over half among whites; from about three-fourths to just under three-fifths among Hispanics; and, most dramatically, from about three-fourths to just under half among African Americans. The verdict varies little by generation, with members of the millennial generation (at 53 percent) about as likely as those from the “Silent Generation”—people born from the mid-1920s into the ‘40s—and older (at 55 percent) to say children of all races can get ahead.

Tonya Angelo, an African American caterer from San Pedro, California, who is now on disability leave, believes opportunity is still distributed too unevenly. “All of us [who are] considered minorities, we’ve been living at the same level since we were born,” the 38-year-old said. “A lot of us got education and degrees and all that and still can’t get a good-paying job. You might have made a mistake when you were younger … or you might not know the right person to get into that place to make that kind of money. A lot of minorities are hindered for that.”

One group was conspicuously more likely to say that children from all races can succeed: Republicans. Sixty-five percent of them said so, compared to about half of political independents and only about two-fifths of Democrats. Robert Fleming, a 33-year-old former intelligence worker in Cicero, New York, was one of those Republicans. “If you want to work hard, don’t give up, don’t take no for an answer, you’ll get somewhere,” he said. “The world is not a social experiment. You make your own opportunities. If you don’t make any, it’s not because of anybody else’s fault. It’s your fault.”

The consensus was broader, if gloomier, when people were asked to assess the nation’s actual progress in equalizing opportunity for all races. Just 33 percent of those surveyed said that the United States has been doing better during the past decade “at providing equal opportunity for people” of every race, down substantially from 48 percent in May 2011. Nearly as many—29 percent in the new poll, up from 17 percent—said things have grown worse. (A plurality of 36 percent, up from 33 percent, saw little change.) African Americans were slightly more likely than whites or Hispanics to see opportunity as expanding; even so, only two-fifths of blacks saw progress.

Attitudes have also dimmed on the question of whether the nation provides adequate opportunities “for children from all income groups” to succeed. In the new poll, just 40 percent said yes, down from 48 percent in July 2009, while fully 59 percent (up from 50 percent) said no. The belief that children from all families don’t get an equal shot at success has grown widely, the new survey found. Only about two-fifths of whites and African Americans said children from all income groups had sufficient chance to succeed; Hispanics were only slightly more likely (at 45 percent) to see positive trends. Likewise, no more than about two-fifths of millennials, Generation X-ers, and baby boomers saw sufficient opportunity across class lines; only respondents from the Silent Generation and older were slightly more optimistic (at 50 percent).

In a measure of Americans’ continuing belief in individual initiative, respondents in households with incomes below $50,000 were actually likelier than those from wealthier households to believe that children from all classes had sufficient opportunity to succeed. Likewise, whites without a college degree were more likely to see sufficient opportunity than those with advanced education. But majorities of both upper- and lower-income respondents, and of whites with and without a college degree, doubted that children of every class got enough of a chance to get ahead.

Karen Smith, an education professor in Farmington, Maine, is among those who believe the evidence is now indisputable that opportunities aren’t equal across racial and class lines. “Students that are in the lower echelon do not even come close to reaping the benefits and the opportunities that are available to the ones who are in the upper-income brackets,” she said. “There’s a huge gap and a divide. That’s not even my opinion. I’m basing that on fact, on data, on evidence.”

Asked to assess the nation’s actual progress in extending opportunity across class lines, just 21 percent of the poll’s respondents said the United States has been doing better at providing equal opportunity across all income groups during the past 10 years. Nearly twice as many—40 percent—said the country is doing worse, while 36 percent saw no change. The verdict was comparably cloudy on the nation’s progress at equalizing opportunity across all generations: 27 percent saw improvement, 33 percent said the situation is getting worse, and 36 percent saw no change. Millennials were the likeliest respondents to see progress, though only 36 percent of them did.

The sense, broadly shared, that the opportunity for success is constricting provides an important backdrop to the divided and conflicted responses about the impact of immigration and the acceleration in demographic diversity. Already, Americans of color, nearly 40 percent of the nation’s population, comprise a majority of children younger than five, and of all students in public schools nationwide. Before 2020, they are expected to become a majority of Americans younger than 18. This year, for the first time, minorities could account for 30 percent of the national electorate.

After noting the “large-scale immigration” of recent years and the fact that “racial and ethnic minorities now comprise more than one-third of the American population,” the pollsters asked respondents about the effects on specific aspects of national life and on the country overall.

The answers leaned toward the positive, on two measures. Fifty percent of those polled said immigration and growing diversity have had a positive effect on American culture, while only 36 percent said the impact has been negative. Similarly, 47 percent said immigration and diversity have improved their local community, while only 29 percent said the opposite. But the reaction was darker when questions turned to the economy—47 percent of adults saw the impact of immigration and diversity as mostly negative, versus 36 percent who saw it as mostly positive. In a measure of how fears of terrorism are roiling the immigration debate, a more decisive 55 percent said immigration and diversity have adversely affected national security; just 25 percent saw a positive effect.

The bottom line was a virtually even split in opinion: 43 percent of respondents said immigration and growing diversity have had a positive impact “on the nation overall,” while 44 percent said the impact has been mostly negative.

The concerns about national security crossed almost all demographic categories (although partisan Democrats, millennials, and Hispanics were less likely than others to express anxiety). The other questions, however, showed patterns of divergence that are consistent with the alignments that now define American politics.

Core constituencies in the modern Democratic coalition viewed these changes in mostly positive terms: 61 percent of millennials, 57 percent of Hispanics, and 53 percent of college-educated white women, the survey found, said immigration and diversity have mostly benefited the country.

Kerie Amsden, a 38-year-old white woman in Hunter, Missouri, who is studying for a college degree in administration, believes that immigration and diversity are strengthening America. “Legal immigration is what our country stands on—it makes us more diverse, it allows us the ability to learn about other people,” she said. “I tell my kids all the time that I feel like their generation is the one that is going to make a difference in the world, because they don’t see a difference in one person or the other because of the color of their skin or whether they’re from Mexico, Saudi Arabia, or from Germany or anywhere else in the world. They learn about that person and they realize we have things in common, we enjoy the same things, we have the same goals, we have the same values. And they don’t judge them. They judge them by who they are, but not where they’re from or the color of their skin.”

In stark contrast, the belief that immigration benefits the country overall was echoed by just 33 percent of white men—and 35 percent of white women—without a college degree and by 33 percent of whites over 50; these are all groups that now solidly lean Republican and make up a big share of the party’s voters in primary elections.

Mike Bennett, a 50-year-old construction worker in South San Francisco, is a Republican who is passionate about immigration. He sees it as an unalloyed threat to the nation’s security—“I think they should close the borders … especially with people coming from Syria and Russia”—and also to U.S. prosperity. “It’s taken away our jobs,” he said. “We don’t need to take people from Mexico and bring them here just to farm. That takes away from our tax dollars, honestly.”

In all, 61 percent of Democrats said the impact of immigration and diversity on the nation overall has mostly been positive. Among Republicans, 69 percent found the impact mostly negative. College-educated white men (at 43 percent positive, 45 percent negative) and political independents (42 percent positive, 45 percent negative) teetered between those two views.

The big anomaly: African Americans expressed much more concern about immigration and diversity than did other elements of the Democratic coalition. Other polls in recent years have found African Americans’ anxiety over immigration on the decline, but the Heartland Monitor survey detected a clear note of concern. While a strong majority of blacks said immigration has benefited their community, slightly less than half saw advantages for American culture. More African Americans saw negative (46 percent) than positive (38 percent) impacts on the economy, and they split almost evenly (43 percent positive versus 41 percent negative) on what it has meant for the nation overall.

Behind those broad conclusions often lies an ambivalence. Jamie Williams is an African American in the Bronx who was recently laid off from his job in a warehouse. “I think that everybody deserves an opportunity to better their life and to provide for their family,” he said. “If there are people out there who are willing to work longer hours and for less pay, if they’re willing to do that, God bless them. The last time I checked, I’ve never seen a broke Mexican. [But] I think it has a negative impact on the economy because they’re willing to accept lower pay for something that they should be getting minimum wage for.”

The poll and the follow-on interviews also make clear how much the anxieties about the economy and about the nation’s evolving demographics have become intertwined. Respondents who believe that today’s young people will have more opportunity than adults do now are mostly positive about immigration and the nation’s growing diversity: 58 percent of them say this mostly benefits the country. Even a plurality (48 percent) of those who believe the next generation’s opportunities will remain unchanged are positive about the demographic changes. But those who think today’s young people will have fewer opportunities are deeply pessimistic about immigration and diversity—63 percent of them said the effects are mostly bad.

All of which suggests that the national worries over economic opportunity and demographic change have combined, creating a mixture even more combustible—for the nation’s society, economy, and politics—than either alone.

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll is the 25th in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll reprises central questions that the survey explored, mostly in its first two years, to document how American attitudes have changed since the Great Recession. It surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones from Jan. 2 to Jan 6 and 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.