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.”