The Atlantic Media/Pearson Opportunity Poll: Americans Believe Skills are Pathway to Success, but Many See Barriers

56% of black respondents and 43% of Hispanics perceive the country heading in the right direction, compared to only 33% of whites

Washington, D.C., Austin, TX (March 8, 2016)—In the midst of an election season driven by fiery debate over opportunity, success, and what it means to “win” in America, The Atlantic Media/Pearson Opportunity Poll, released today, reveals that a strong majority of Americans believe they would get better and higher paying jobs if they obtained more skills; but they also see barriers -- mostly financial-- in their way. Despite popular campaign rhetoric, most whites, Hispanics, and Asians broadly rate their opportunities for employment as equal to, or better than, other Americans; only 8% of white respondents believe they have worse access to employment opportunities compared to other groups. African Americans have an opposite view: 55% of those polled believe they have worse access to opportunity than other groups. The Atlantic’s “Next America” project is reporting the results of the poll beginning today with the first
in a series of articles, "What Do Americans Believe Will Help Them Get Ahead?" Full results will be posted later this morning and further coverage and analysis of the key findings will be published throughout the week.

Among ethnic groups, Hispanics express the most concern about their skill levels, with only 33% feeling they have above-average skills; Asian Americans and African Americans also register more concern than whites. Looking over a ten-year period, a majority of Hispanics (51%) say they are concerned their skills could be obsolete. The poll found that blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites and Asians to say they could obtain a better job with more education and training.

Overall, workers look to employers as the single best source for upgrading their skills, more than double their reliance on state, local, or federal government, or non-profit groups. Cost ranked as the biggest barrier to obtaining more training, especially for African-Americans (39% rated cost as a barrier) and Hispanics (34%). Lack of time due to work or family obligations followed for all groups. Only small percentages said their biggest obstacle was a lack of knowledge about where to obtain more training -- or a belief that it wouldn’t help them earn more.

The Atlantic Media/Pearson Opportunity Poll gauges the mix of public policies and individual actions that Americans believe will provide themselves and their children the best pathways to success. This is the inaugural Opportunity Poll. Key results are laid out below, and will be presented by The Atlantic’s senior editor Ronald Brownstein later this morning at an event on workforce development and skills training in Austin, Texas.

“The poll makes clear that Americans have gotten the memo: they recognize that in the information age the more you learn, the more you earn,” said Brownstein. “But the survey also shows that Americans see a thicket of obstacles that inhibit them from obtaining the training and education they believe they could help them get ahead, with cost an especially elevated concern for African-American and Hispanic workers.”

“While there continue to be many Americans who feel economic opportunity is out of reach, we still share a common faith in the value of education,” said John Fallon, Pearson’s chief executive officer. “Education has never been more important as the key to unlocking a better job and a better life.  All of us have a role to play and communities must work together toward that goal.”

Among the topline findings:

African Americans and Hispanics believe country is heading in the right direction; whites disagree.

  • Only 25% of white respondents believe that the country is heading in the right direction while a majority 66% believe it’s on the wrong track. The sentiment among blacks and Hispanics paints a different outlook: 56% and 43% of those polled, respectively, think the country is on the right track, with 31% and 50% claiming the opposite.

  • On President Obama’s approval, blacks and Hispanics had high approval (of 90% and 61% respectively), while whites registered more disapproval (56% disapprove).

A narrow majority believes government should provide free public college.

  • When it comes to government funding college—a central campaign tenet on the Democratic side—a narrow 51% majority of those polled believe that the government should provide free public college, while 44% endorsed the competing statement that it is too expensive.

  • Of those who support free college, 74% said they would be willing to pay more in federal taxes as a result.  

Americans are uneasy about whether schools are equipping young people to succeed, and uncertain whether they need a four-year college degree to do so.

  • A narrow 53% majority said “going to college” gives young people the best chance to succeed, followed by vocational training with 37%. Hispanics and Asians were most likely to consider a four-year degree indispensable. Whites and blacks both leaned towards no.

  • Asked if schools in their neighborhood were equipping young people to succeed, only a slim 49-46% plurality of all respondents say yes; this is a steady decline since a highpoint of 62 percent in a 2012 Next America Poll.

Americans are more likely to see barriers of class than race:

  • Respondents identified the biggest barriers to their own personal advancement as: wages not rising fast enough (40%), a lack of good jobs in their community (30%), not having enough education (28%), not having enough technical skills (23%) and a lack of promotion opportunities at work (21%).

  • African Americans and Hispanics were much more likely than whites to describe almost all of these as major barriers, with Hispanics particularly concerned about not having enough education (50%) and African Americans heavily worried about wages (64%) and lack of good jobs in their neighborhood (47%).

African Americans are much more likely than other groups to express concern about opportunity and police relations in their neighborhoods:

  • While 77% of whites, 73% of Hispanics and 71% of Asian Americans say children of color in their neighborhood have the same opportunities as whites, only 41 percent of African Americans agree.

  • Only 13% of black say they can trust the police in their neighborhood to do what’s right “almost always,” compared to 45 percent of whites, 48 percent of Asian Americans and 31 percent of Hispanics.

The Atlantic Media/Pearson Opportunity Poll is part of The Atlantic’s “Next America” project, which explores how changing demography is changing the nation, through the lens of politics, socioeconomics, criminal justice, education, culture, workforce, and more. Next America was conceptualized under National Journal in 2012 and was adopted by The Atlantic earlier this year.

Led by Brownstein, the initiative includes editorial reporting, events, and polling. A series of articles based on results from this poll will be published across the coming days.

Survey Methodology:

The Atlantic Media/Pearson Opportunity Poll gauges the mix of public policies and personal choices that Americans believe will provide them and their children the best chance of success. The poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from February 10-25, 2016. The survey included a sample of 1,276 adults age 18+, with a special oversample that allows unusually detailed comparison of attitudes across racial and ethnic lines. The breakdown of group sampled follows: 597 white/non-Hispanic; 266 black/non-Hispanic; 258 Hispanic; 107 Asian/non-Hispanic. Respondents were given the choice to take the survey in English or Spanish. The overall margin of +/- 4.3 percentage points.