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Majority in U.S. Satisfied With Opportunity to Get Ahead

Majority in U.S. Satisfied With Opportunity to Get Ahead

Story Highlights

  • 63% satisfied with opportunity to get ahead, similar to last year's 66%
  • This level of satisfaction is lower than in 2001, but up from 2012
  • 32% are satisfied with the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans remain much more satisfied with the opportunity for economic mobility in the U.S. than they are with the distribution of economic outcomes, although their views of the former have changed significantly over the years. Currently, 63% are satisfied with the opportunity for a person to get ahead by working hard, compared with 32% who are satisfied with the distribution of income and wealth.

Satisfaction With Economic Mobility and Economic Inequality

Gallup began tracking the "opportunity to get ahead" question in January 2001, at the tail end of the dot-com boom. At that point, 76% of Americans said they were satisfied with opportunities for upward economic mobility. That percentage remained high the next year but dropped slightly over the following few years. The question was not asked in 2009 and 2010, but by 2011 -- after the economic recession -- satisfaction with the ability to get ahead dropped further and reached its low of 53% in 2012. Satisfaction has been higher in the past several years -- 66% last year and 63% this year.

The measure of satisfaction with the way income and wealth are distributed was first included in Gallup's January Mood of the Nation survey in 2014. About a third of Americans have expressed satisfaction with wealth distribution that year and in the four years since, including 32% this year.


Republicans' Views on Ability to Get Ahead Have Changed Significantly Since 2001

Like so much else in today's society, politics plays a significant role in how Americans perceive economic inequality in the U.S.

Republicans' views of the ability to get ahead have changed significantly over the years since 2001, basically in line with changes of presidential administrations. Republicans' satisfaction was significantly higher than Democrats' during the George W. Bush administration.

During the years Barack Obama was in the White House, Republicans' satisfaction dropped to the point where it was tied with, or lower than, Democrats'. The Republican decline could also have been tied to the recession and sluggish recovery that covered much of Obama's presidency. Republicans became significantly more satisfied than Democrats last January, just before Donald Trump's inauguration. The gap expanded further this year, with Trump in office, to a 36-percentage-point difference between Republicans' (86%) and Democrats' (50%) satisfaction with the ability to get ahead; this is the highest gap on record.

Democrats' satisfaction has shown less change than Republicans', even during the recession. Democratic satisfaction this year -- by one point -- is the lowest on record.

Satisfaction With the Opportunity for a Person in This Nation to Get Ahead by Working Hard

Less Change Since 2014 in Views of the Distribution of Income and Wealth

Republicans have been consistently more positive than Democrats about income and wealth distribution over the five years Gallup has tracked the measure. As was the case for views of the opportunity to get ahead, the gap between Republicans' and Democrats' satisfaction has reached its highest point this year, as Republicans have become more positive and Democrats less so. The spread is now 40 points -- 57% of Republicans are satisfied, compared with 17% of Democrats. From 2014 through 2017, the spread was in the range of 20 points.

Satisfaction With the Way Income and Wealth Are Distributed in the U.S.

Age, Income Not as Related to Views of Opportunity to Get Ahead

Age and income don't have a strong relationship to Americans' views of the opportunity to get ahead in this country. Young people are not substantively different from older age groups, and those with higher incomes are not that different from those with lower incomes.

Younger people and those with lower incomes are modestly less likely to be satisfied with the distribution of wealth and income than others, but the differences are not large.


The questions considered here cover two important aspects of the nation's economic system -- economic mobility, or the ability of people to improve their economic status by working hard, and economic inequality, or the way in which income and wealth are distributed in society. Clearly, Americans are more positive about mobility than equality.

Critics have argued that chances for upward mobility are lower today than in the past. These data support that proposition to a modest degree because slightly fewer Americans say they are satisfied with the ability to get ahead than was the case, on average, in 2001-2008. At the same time, satisfaction has been climbing since it reached a low point in the post-recession years, and a solid majority of Americans are positive about economic mobility at this time.

Other critics have lambasted the extremes of income and wealth in the country, and that criticism receives significant support from the poll results: A substantial majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed.

These results confirm other research showing that Americans are not happy with economic inequality, and a little more than half of Americans are willing to go along with remedies to correct it, such as heavier taxes on the rich. The new tax reform law did not result in disproportionately higher taxes on the rich, although, according to its supporters, it will ultimately help the middle class. Whether the tax cuts will reduce, or expand, economic inequality remains to be seen, although at this point only a small minority of Americans say they have seen any personal financial benefit from the new law.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Jan. 2-7, 2018, on the Gallup U.S. Poll, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View survey methodology, complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.


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