The issue of economic mobility has sparked renewed interest, with a recent report finding that your childhood hometown plays a significant role in how easily you’ll advance to higher income brackets as an adult. David Leonhardt’s latest piece for The New York Times examines the study, which finds rates of upward mobility are higher in metropolitan areas where poor families are dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods. It also finds that children who have the best shot at moving ahead financially come from two-parent households, grow up near good schools and in communities that stress civic engagement.
PRRI’s newly released 2013 Economic Values Survey finds that economic optimism is low across generational divides. Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans say they’re worse off financially than their parents’ generation, compared to 36 percent who say they’re better off and another 16 percent who report they’re about the same. Americans also have a pessimistic outlook on their children’s chances of upward economic mobility, as they’re twice as likely to believe their generation is better off financially than their children’s generation will be (52 percent) than they are to believe that their generation is worse off than their children’s generation (26 percent); 18 percent believe their children’s prospects are the same as their own.
The root of economic pessimism is difficult to determine. While 7-in-10 (70%) Americans are aware that the gap between the rich and poor has gotten larger during the last ten years, the country’s split on the degree to which family instability and the decline of two-parent families is responsible for America’s current economic problems. Nearly half say they completely agree (17 percent) or mostly agree (32 percent) with the statement that family instability is a primary cause, while an equal number say they mostly disagree (31 percent) or completely disagree (18 percent) and that family instability is not a primary cause. There are sharp partisan divisions on this question, with more than 6-in-10 (63%) Republicans agreeing that the decline of two-parent families is the primary cause of America’s current economic problems, compared to 41% of Democrats.
The PRRI survey shows a strong link between how Americans currently evaluate economic opportunity in society and their views about the future. Americans overall are divided on whether they believe children from all income groups have adequate opportunities to be successful in America today. Nearly half of Americans say they completely agree (16 percent) or mostly agree (31 percent) that all children have adequate opportunities, while a slim majority say they mostly disagree (32 percent) or completely disagree (21 percent) with that statement. However, those who do not believe that children from all walks of life have equal chances to be successful are more likely to say their generation is worse off than their parents’ generation than those who perceive greater equality of opportunity (54 percent vs. 44 percent). More than 4-in-10 (42 percent) of those who believe all children have adequate opportunities for success say their generation is better off than their parents’ generation.
It seems the conversation about equal economic opportunity is far from over, as the growing gap between rich and poor continues to fuel financial frustrations and pessimism about the future of the U.S. economy.