Is the American Dream dead?

For the first time in a very long time, Americans aren't so sure their kids will have better lives than they do.

That's according to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll that shows just one in three people believe "most children in this country will grow up to be better off" than their parents. (A whopping 63 percent said their kids will be worse off.) Not only are those numbers stunning but they are also a stunning reversal from CNN data at the end of the last century (1999 to be exact) -- when two thirds of Americans predicted that children would grow up to have it better than their parents.

And the CNN/ORC data is far from the only evidence we have that the long-running belief that each generation will be better off than the last is fading. In 2013, the Post did a major survey alongside the Miller Center at the University of Virginia that sought to dig into the topic. Fifty four percent of those tested by WaPo in 2013 said that they were "better off" than their parents while just 39 percent said they thought their children would have a better quality of life than they have.

What gives? Why is there a declining belief that every successive generation will be better -- happier, more productive, more comfortable -- than the last?

A few thoughts.

1. This has been a uniquely difficult last decade (or so) for the American public. That same WaPo-Miller Center poll showed that on virtually every measure people said things had been getting harder rather than easier for them over the past few years. Seven percent said it had been getting easier to get ahead financially while 66 percent said it had been getting harder; 5 percent said it was getting easier to find good jobs while 74 percent said it was getting harder. You get the idea.  There may be something of a recency effect at work here; people have struggled amid a sputtering economy in recent years, which has made the idea of what the future might hold a far more tenuous proposition than it once was.

2. There has been a long decline in faith in societal institutions like the government, churches, the Supreme Court, the business world and so on and so forth. Check out this chart via Gallup 2013 data:

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 1.50.37 PM

Take the Supreme Court. As recently as 1997, one in four people expressed a "great deal" of confidence in the nation's highest court; as of June 2013, that number was down to 13 percent. Or banks. In 2005, 22 percent said they had a "great deal" of faith in them; eight years later that number had plummeted to 10 percent. There is virtually no institution -- the military and the police being the notable exceptions -- that people have more faith in today than they did even a few years ago.

That disappearance of trust in the longtime pillars of our society adds up to a sort of pervasive uncertainty about the future that leads to a belief that, no, things might not just keep getting better for the country.

Regardless of the reason for that growing pessimism about the future, it has potentially profound effects on our politics.  Politicians are no longer able  to throw out rhetorical rah-rah's  about how the country is moving toward a better future; they now have to hedge to acknowledge that people may not expect the future to be brighter than the present.

Here's how President Obama handled that issue during his 2014 State of the Union Address:

What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all, the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.

Now, let's face it: That belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by; let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all.

Thats a remarkably hard-boiled take on the current cultural climate from the top-ranking politician in the country.

Uncertainty is something politicians loathe.  It makes attempting to divine the will of the electorate that much harder. But, the defining trait of our modern age is uncertainty -- a lack of surety that the future will be better than the past or that there is any sort of safety net there to catch us if we fall.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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