America, The (Jacksonian) Meritocracy

A fascinating survey released Thursday by the Pew Economic Mobility Project-one of the few million research arms of the Pew Charitable Trusts-illuminates from some fresh angles the complex American attitudes toward opportunity, fairness and government likely to shape public reaction to President Obama's sweeping agenda.

The survey, jointly conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm of Public Opinion Strategies, studied public attitudes about whether it's possible to get ahead in America and what it takes to do so. The poll (which surveyed 2,119 adults from January 27 through February 8) didn't directly address the immediate political debate; but it charted, with unusual scope, the backdrop of underlying attitudes against which the argument between the parties is playing out. And it offered warning flares for both sides.
Overall, the survey found that most Americans-across class lines-still believe that the most important factor in whether people get ahead is their own talent and effort, not broad social and economic conditions. By a decisive 71% to 21%, those polled said upward mobility depended more on the "individual person and things like hard work and drive" than "outside factors and things like the economy and their economic circumstances growing up." At least three-fifths of those surveyed at every income level picked individual effort as the key to success.

"People still think that individuals matter a great deal in this country, more so than government in determining their fate and what happens to them," says Glen Bolger, the POS pollster who worked on the survey and accompanying focus groups.

In a separate question, hard work, having ambition, and staying healthy -- all personal traits largely under individual control-ranked one-two-three when respondents were asked what factors determined whether people advanced in life. Similarly when asked why people slip down the income ladder, the top picks were "poor life choices" and "too much debt"-personal decisions again.

As the pollsters wrote in a memo summarizing the results, "Despite the economic downturn...the notion that America is a meritocracy where individuals can apply themselves and move ahead continues to endure. Most Americans, including those on the bottom rung of the income ladder, believe their own economic mobility is within their control and remain optimistic about their get ahead."

That inclination to look toward individual initiative as the key factor in success tilted most of those polled toward Republican perspectives on two key questions. While many Democrats from Obama on down argue that the rewards of economic growth have been unfairly tilted toward the affluent for roughly the past quarter-century, ensuring "fairness" was less of a priority for most of those surveyed than expanding opportunity. Asked whether it was "more reduce inequality in America or to ensure everyone has a fair chance of improving their economic standing" just 21% picked reducing inequality, while a resounding 71% put greater priority on ensuring opportunity. Those results were virtually unchanged at every rung along the income ladder, and suggest the limits of a Democratic message that sells redistributive tax policy primarily on the grounds of economic fairness.

David Walker, a senior associate at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, says the results point to an important dividing line in public attitudes about the affluent. While voters "don't resent the rich," he says, they do grow resentful "when they believe the rich are getting advantages at their expense." So while a broad message of economic equity might not resonate, he argues, there is more public support for government policies targeted at specific actions viewed as unfair-such as excessive executive compensation in companies receiving public aid. In many ways, that's an updated version of the arguments Andrew Jackson rode to the White House
in 1828.

The survey identifies another potential obstacle for Obama: in one of the poll's most striking findings, a 46% to 36% plurality believe the government now does more to hurt than to help people get ahead. While a 48% to 33% plurality of Democrats thought government did more to help than hurt, Republicans (26-62) and independents (26-55) overwhelmingly disagreed. At every income level, more respondents thought government hurt than helped their ability to get ahead.

Those findings suggest an entrenched skepticism confronts Obama's effort to portray government as a critical tool in expanding opportunity for average families.

And yet the door doesn't seem completely closed on that sale either. Like many surveys, this poll found more support for specific government actions than for government intervention as a broad principle. Despite the overall skepticism about government's contribution to economic advancement, a quality education ranked just behind hard work, ambition and health when people were asked what factors contributed most to personal economic success. Even more telling, the poll found substantial majorities believed an assortment of discrete government policies could widen opportunity. Fully 81% of those polled, for instance, said policies to keep American jobs at home could be "very effective" in improving economic mobility; 75% said making college more affordable would also be very effective. Majorities of at least 60% said the same thing about reducing health care costs, expanding pre-school, widening job training, helping small business, and facilitating retirement saving-all Obama priorities. Cutting taxes, the main Republican alternative, ranked a clear step behind with just over 50% calling it very effective.

Both Walker and Bolger see in these findings a pronounced ambivalence about government. "There is a decided lack of trust in government to do things and do things well, but on the other hand people certainly see a role for government to enact certain policies [that can help] improve their economic mobility," Bolger says.

Walker offers a slight variation: "We believe part of the resistance to government is not just an ideological instinct, but also a reflection of conservative governance, which is to say Katrina and the economy and the last eight years have not exactly [presented] the most edifying picture of government. On the other hand, there's a lesson for progressives here: Americans don't consider themselves victims and we have to speak to their ambition and hard work and responsibility." While Obama "has stressed this," Walker says, "it doesn't always come through in the quotes that get carried."

So what's the bottom line? The pollsters conclude: "At its core, the nation believes that economic mobility is largely determined by individual effort and choices, and [it] values equality of opportunity over equality of outcomes." That's a cautionary signal for Obama and his Democratic Congressional allies. But the survey also makes clear that while Americans are skeptical that government is now helping to expand opportunity, they still believe a wide range of government interventions could help to do so. That's a cautionary signal for Republicans effectively arguing that the most important thing government can do in the current crisis is to simply get out of the way. Above all, for both sides, as Walker says, "the main story is about what makes America different and what makes America unique, and strong and resilient." Even in the midst of the most unnerving economic downturn since the Depression.