Young Americans are almost equally divided on the future of the American Dream. New figures released by the Harvard Public Opinion Project (HPOP) poll show that while 49 percent of America’s youth believe the American Dream to be alive, 48 percent believe it to dead.
Growing income inequality has provided ammunition to the increasing number of Americans who herald the death of the American Dream. Between the end of WWII and the 1970s, wealth in America grew at more or less a constant rate for all citizens. However, since the 1970s, the income and wealth of the richest Americans has grown faster than that of those who are less well off. The 400 richest Americans now have a larger net worth than the poorest 150 million.
But not all demographic groups are equally ambivalent about the American Dream. The HPOP poll found that for young voters, faith in the American Dream increased with degree of education. While only 42 percent of youths not enrolled in a university and without a college degree said they believed that the American Dream is alive, the figures rose to 48 percent for those currently in vocational training, 55 percent for college and graduate students, and 58 percent for those who have graduated college. These statistics were matched in a corresponding drop in those who stated that the American Dream is dead—while 54 percent of those who never enrolled in college believed the dream was dead, only 42 percent of college students thought the same.
These figures suggest the American Dream is at least perceived as more realistic for those who have benefited from education’s upward mobility boost. These results also correspond with previous HPOP polls, which found that young people viewed education as the most important determinant in achieving the American Dream.
Belief in the American Dream also differs by which language respondents spoke. Although the data for race was not statistically significant, there is an extraordinary disparity between those who took the survey in English and those who took the survey in Spanish. While 48 percent of English speakers believed the American Dream was alive, an astonishing 66 percent of Spanish speakers said the same. Only 29 percent of Spanish speakers thought the American dream is dead, compared to 49 percent of English speakers.
This optimism is in accord with other results, which suggest that Hispanics are the most likely group to believe in the American Dream. Experts like the Pew Hispanic Center’s Mark Lopez attribute this viewpoint to Hispanic immigrants’ reasons for migrating to the United States—they often move to this country seeking better lives. Spanish speakers remain a pocket of hope for the American Dream, but their optimism has yet to translate into solid and sustainable gains; although Hispanics’ income and level of education are likely to rise between first- and second-generation immigrants, they can slip in later generations.
Youths also appear skeptical of government’s ability to resuscitate the American Dream. A full 50 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement “For the problems facing America today, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Only 15 percent disagreed. Although faith in government has been low since Vietnam and Watergate in the 70s, the economic and political context of the last few years have caused faith in government to fall to record lows. Increasingly, people believe the odds are stacked against their favor, and that government cannot fix present problems. A majority of Americans believe that the current economic system favors the wealthy, but years of congressional gridlock and political inactivity have hindered the government from achieving any meaningful reduction of inequality.
The American Dream is not dead, but today’s youth are skeptical of its promises. Some small groups like Spanish speakers remain hopeful, but the majority of youth are much more ambivalent, not to mention mistrustful of government. Until the American government can reinvent itself as a functioning problem solver, the self-made success story that is the American Dream will have to look elsewhere for salvation.
Image source: Harvard Public Opinion Project