By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Racing into a new century in which many of the old rules don’t seem to apply anymore, Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about their chances of achieving and sustaining the American dream, according to a new Marist-McClatchy Poll.
They see an economic system in which they have to work harder than ever to get ahead, and a political system that’s unresponsive to their needs. They see the wealthy allowed to play by a different set of rules from everyone else.
Eight out of 10 Americans think it’s harder now than before, taking more effort to get ahead than it did for previous generations. Just 15 percent think it takes the same work as it did before, and a scant 5 percent think it’s easier now.
And Americans don’t think it will get better soon, with 78 percent thinking it also will be harder for the next generation to get ahead.
The findings underscore the landscape at a time when the economy and the country are being fundamentally changed by waves of globalization and new technology, and as Americans struggle to see a better path forward and their politicians grapple over how to help.
President Barack Obama speaks frequently about the growing gap between rich and poor, and he pushes for a higher minimum wage and health care subsidies, as well as programs to help people find new skills, at the same time he pushes free trade, which some blame for an exodus of jobs to lower-paying foreign factories. Republicans propose help for businesses, hoping that would lead them to hire more and pay more.
Neither side has sold the public on a future full of economic hope.
Looking at work, Americans think by 75-22 percent that U.S. corporations make stockholders their top priority, over their employees.
Looking at their own lives, most people consider themselves middle class. Eighty-six percent of those polled identified themselves that way, with 14 percent calling themselves upper middle class, 50 percent saying middle class and 22 percent saying lower middle class.
Most think the middle class is hurt most by government policies. Fifty-five percent think the middle class is most likely to be left behind by those actions, while another 40 percent said the poor would be hurt the most.
The findings come as the nation and the federal government struggle to help the economy rebound in a robust fashion. Officially, the deep recession that began in December 2007 has been over since mid-2009, but growth has been sluggish, consumer confidence has just begun to improve and government spending has been restrained.
“The poll really explains why people are feeling on the sidelines and so despondent,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York.
Polling has found that most people are wary of whether Washington can assist, but the new survey has constituents questioning whether any part of the American system can be a big help.
Two-thirds of those surveyed said people who worked hard still had a hard time maintaining their standard of living, a view that cut across nearly every income, geographic and age line.
Seventy-two percent of those who earn less than $50,000 a year felt that way, and 66 percent of those who earn more agreed. So did 63 percent of 18- to 29-year olds, and 71 percent of those 60 and older.
These attitudes have been building for years, Miringoff said, and the gloom is fueled by a political system that people think isn’t responsive to their needs.
“People just feel that those in Washington are not looking out for them,” he said. “They really feel a disconnect.”
The distrust of the wealthy — and the old belief that you could pull yourself up by your own bootstraps — was evident as 85 percent said there were different rules for the well-connected and people with money. Only 14 percent said everyone more or less played by the same rules to get ahead.
Even the wealthier felt that way, as 84 percent of those who earn more than $50,000 agreed, while 88 percent of those who make less concurred.
This survey of 1,197 adults was conducted Feb. 4-9 by the Marist Poll, sponsored in partnership with McClatchy. People 18 and older who live in the continental United States were surveyed by telephone by live interviewers. Landline telephone numbers were randomly selected based on a list of exchanges from throughout the nation from ASDE Survey Sampler Inc. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers from Survey Sampling International. The two samples then were combined and balanced to reflect the 2010 census results for age, gender, income, race and region. Results are statistically significant within 2.8 percentage points. There are 970 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within 3.1 percentage points. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations.
Photo: Christian Ramirez via Flickr