These figures, which PRC includes toward the back of its report, do suggest that the extent of economic pessimism increased between 1986 and 2008. But other polling evidence contradicts that conclusion. For more than 20 years, surveys have asked whether it has grown harder or easier over the past generation to attain “the American Dream.” According to polls by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, six in ten Americans thought it had grown harder in 1990, as did six in ten Americans in 1995. A 2010 Xavier University poll using a slightly different version of the question found this belief to be held by . . . six in ten. A Xavier poll a year later, in 2011, saw the figure jump to seven in ten. That result was comparable, however, to what Roper found in 1992, another year in which the nation was recovering from recession.
More important, longstanding majority belief that it is getting harder to keep up should be considered along with another longstanding result of opinion polling on the economy: When asked about their own economic circumstances, Americans give much more optimistic responses than they do when asked about Americans in general. People’s impressions of how others are doing are more pessimistic than what they say about their own lives.
As an example, when I was at Pew, the Economic Mobility Project sponsored a poll independently of PRC in early 2009 asking about a host of mobility-related topics. We found that 73 percent of Americans rated “economic conditions in this country today” as “poor.” In contrast, just 25 percent rated their “personal economic situation today” as “poor” when given the same response options. Three in four people said they were “very much” or “somewhat” in control of their personal economic situation, but only 43 percent thought the same about “people in this country.” Three in five parents thought their children would have a higher standard of living than they had, but just two in five non-parents thought the same would be true of “kids today.”
This sort of result is pervasive in public-opinion research related to the economy. People feel good about their own situation but guess incorrectly that others must feel bad about theirs. Indeed, this “I’m okay, they’re not” syndrome — a phenomenon identified by the writer David Whitman — extends to non-economic matters as well. Parents like their kids’ schools but think schools in general are awful; voters like their representatives but think Congress is the pits.
PRC emphasizes that 42 percent of the middle class say they are “less financially secure” than ten years ago. Forty-two percent is obviously a large minority, but on the other hand this figure doesn’t tell us how many people feel significantly less secure. I feel less secure than ten years ago, and I have some anxiety as a relatively new parent with a wife who is due to graduate into the labor force soon. But I can’t say that economic anxiety is anything like a central feature of my day-to-day existence.
The same is likely to be true of many other people who feel less secure than they did in 2002. Don’t take my word for it: According to PRC’s poll, 80 percent of self-identified middle-class adults are “pretty” or “very” happy with their life, as are 77 percent of all adults. Only 37 percent of middle-class adults “frequently” experience stress (much of it presumably related to non-economic issues), and only 42 percent of all adults. That is basically the same as in 1994, 2001, and 2002. Seventy-two percent of the middle class and 64 percent of all adults are “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with their personal financial situation. The corresponding satisfaction levels for respondents’ “present housing situation” are 90 percent for the middle class and 86 percent for everyone. In 1996, 87 percent of adults were that satisfied. “Gloomier?” Sure — but we are barely clear of the worst recession in 70 years. “Gloomy?” Hard to see it.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest rejoinder to the PRC report’s “fewer, poorer, gloomier” conclusion is its own finding that, despite the Great Recession and molasses recovery, 57 percent of all adults say their living standards exceed those of their parents at the same age, while just 17 percent say they are worse off. The conventional wisdom is that they shouldn’t trust their lying eyes, and it’s true that in the aggregate the respondents’ assessment does not match the facts. In actuality, as Pew’s Economic Mobility Project has shown using 40 years of data on actual parents and children, 84 percent of today’s adults are better off than their parents were at the same age.
– Mr. Winship is a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.