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"Overall, Americans express significant concerns about the economic future for themselves and their children," the PRRI study shows. (Credit: Public Religion Research Institute)

Broken Dreams: Amidst Economic Insecurity, Americans Can't Get Ahead

Survey finds lost faith in the American Dream

Deirdre Fulton

A new study shows that a majority of Americans have "a decidedly gloomy" economic outlook and have lost faith in the so-called American Dream. 

According to the non-profit Public Religion Research Institute's 2014 American Values Survey, "Economic Insecurity, Rising Inequality, and Doubts About the Future," just 4 in 10 Americans say that the American Dream—the idea that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead—still holds true today. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans believe that the American Dream once held true but does not anymore, while 7 percent say the American Dream was always an illusion. Most Americans (55 percent) believe that one of the biggest problems in the country is that not everyone is given an equal chance to succeed in life.

"The rhetoric of hope that worked so well in 2008 would be ineffective now."
—William Galston, Brookings Institution

The survey finds that despite overall improvement in the U.S. economy since the Great Recession, 41 percent of Americans report high or moderate economic insecurity, with more than one-third saying that they or someone in their household had to reduce meals or cut back on food to save money over the course of the past year. Just 30 percent say the economy has improved over the last two years, with 35 percent saying it's gotten worse, and 33 percent believing it's stayed about the same.

Based on more than 4,500 bilingual (Spanish-English) telephone conversations, about half conducted via cell phone, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey reveals a deep racial divide when it comes to economic and social equality. Nearly 6-in-10 black Americans live in households with moderate (33 percent) or high (25 percent) levels of economic insecurity, the survey found.

"Black Americans are more pessimistic about the idea of the American Dream than other racial groups," a PRRI press release reads. Less than one-third (31 percent) of black Americans say they believe in the American Dream today, while half (50 percent) say they once did but do not anymore, and 14 percent say it never held true at all.

In addition, fewer than 4-in-10 (38 percent) Americans believe that black Americans and other minorities receive the same treatment as white Americans in the criminal justice system. This is a notable shift; just one year ago, the public was evenly divided on the question. In 2014, more than 8-in-10 (84 percent) black Americans say that black Americans and other minorities do not receive equal the same treatment as whites in the criminal justice system, compared to 6-in-10 (60 percent) Hispanics and a slim majority (51 percent) of white Americans.

Writing at the Brookings Institution's FixGov blog, William Galston suggests the PRRI survey has political implications.

"These findings pose a perplexing challenge for political leaders, including 2016 presidential candidates," he says. "On the one hand, pessimists rarely win elections, at least in America. On the other hand, candidates who preach optimism in tough times risk sounding out-of-touch and superficial. The rhetoric of hope that worked so well in 2008 would be ineffective now. In these circumstances, I suspect, citizens will be looking for leaders who offer concrete, credible plans for a better future—and who have what it takes to get the job done."

Here's a hint for those potential leaders: A majority of survey respondents supported raising the minimum wage, increasing the tax rate on Americans earning more than $250,000 a year; requiring companies to provide all full-time employees with paid sick days; and doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

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