PRINCETON, NJ -- Nearly six in 10 Americans are currently dissatisfied with the opportunity for the next generation of Americans to live better than their parents. Older Americans are particularly unhappy on this question, but on balance, the majority of young adults are negative as well.
The idea of America as a place where citizens can rise above their economic position at birth depends partly on an economic system that rewards people based on effort and merit -- not race, class, title, or other social barriers -- and partly on Americans' willingness to make a serious effort to succeed. Americans themselves currently have doubts about both aspects of that equation.
Fifty percent of U.S. adults are satisfied with "the opportunity for a poor person in this nation to get ahead by working hard"; 48% are dissatisfied. Satisfaction with "Americans' willingness to work hard to better themselves" is similarly mixed, with 52% satisfied and 45% dissatisfied.
Americans of all ages have similar perceptions about the existence of merit-based opportunity in the country, with about half of each age group saying they are satisfied with it. However, young and middle-aged adults are a bit less positive than are those 55 and older about Americans' willingness to work hard to better themselves.
These results are based on a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted May 10-13 and could have implications for how Americans perceive President Barack Obama's job performance when deciding whether to support his re-election bid next fall.
Democrats Most Upbeat About American Dream
Among partisan groups, Democrats today are the most upbeat about the financial opportunity available to the next generation, but only on a relative basis. Less than half of Democrats (48%) are satisfied with the opportunity for the next generation to live better than their parents, compared with 37% of Republicans and 35% of independents.
Democrats are also significantly more likely than Republicans to feel satisfied with Americans' willingness to work hard to get ahead, 59% vs. 47%. At the same time, Republicans are a bit more likely than Democrats to be satisfied with the opportunity a poor person has to get ahead through hard work, 56% vs. 50%.
These distinctions may reflect that Democrats are more inclined than Republicans to be positive about national conditions when a Democratic president is leading the nation. Republicans' greater satisfaction, relative to Democrats', with the possibility of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps aligns with their more conservative political credo.
While subdued in absolute terms, Americans' satisfaction with the next generation's prospects of living better than their parents and with effort-based opportunity are in fact higher than at times in 1992 and 1994, when Gallup previously asked these questions. However, satisfaction with Americans' willingness to work hard to better themselves is unchanged from the two prior times Gallup asked the question, both in 1992.
Americans are highly ambivalent about the nation's success at meeting the promise of the American Dream. Nearly half seem to doubt that Americans have either the willingness or the opportunity to get ahead through hard work. And perhaps as a result, they are generally dubious that the members of the next generation have the opportunity to be better off than their parents. Whether this pessimism hurts Obama's chances for re-election isn't clear, but it suggests there isn't a broad sense of optimism about American economic opportunity to help him.
Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 10-13, 2012, with a random sample of 1,012 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, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2011 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.