The single most depressing number in the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll

Three quarters of Americans do not feel confident that their children will have a better life than they do in a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, the lowest number ever measured in the survey and a stunning indication of the historic uncertainty and pessimism coursing through the public.

Fully 76 percent of respondents expressed a lack of confidence that the next generation will have it better than the last one, a major jump from the last time NBC-WSJ asked the question in May 2012 when 63 percent said they lacked confidence that their kids would have it better than they do.  The trend line on the question over the past few decades is even more telling — and troubling.


Image courtesy of NBC-WSJ

What the data above suggests is an erosion of confidence that things will keep getting better for future generations that began in late 1990 and has continued — with a brief interruption in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and rallying effect it occasioned — all the way to the present.

That number goes hand in hand with the next question asked by the NBC-WSJ pollsters. People were asked which of these two statements came closer to their view: 1) "The United States is a country where anyone, regardless of their background, can work hard, succeed and be comfortable financially" or 2) "The widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else is undermining the idea that every American has the opportunity to move up to a better standard of living."  A majority — 54 percent — chose the second statement while 44 percent chose the first.  That is, a majority of people believe that the chasm between rich and poor is making it harder and harder to achieve the American dream.

President Obama addressed the uncertainty and pessimism of many people recently in a speech at, of all things, a fundraiser in Seattle, Washington. He said, in part (bolding is mine):

But whether people see what’s happening in Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression towards its neighbors in the manner in which it’s financing and arming separatists; to what’s happened in Syria — the devastation that Assad has wrought on his own people; to the failure in Iraq for Sunni and Shia and Kurd to compromise — although we’re trying to see if we can put together a government that actually can function; to ongoing terrorist threats; to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza — part of people's concern is just the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles, that’s based on a sense of common humanity, that’s based on economies that work for all people.

It's hard to overestimate what it could mean to politics if the idea that our country is marching forever toward a better future fades or disappears entirely. So much of every politician's patter — Democrat or Republican — is built on the idea that America has always overcome hard challenges, always made things better for our kids than for us, always had achieving the American dream as a real possibility. A large bloc of the electorate no longer believes any of that.

This may be, as Obama suggests above, a transitional phase — that once a "new order" is established the uncertainty and pessimism of the public dissipates or disappears. But, the depth of the uncertainty about the future also leaves open the possibility that the idea of a forever-improving America may be a thing of the past in the minds of many of its citizens. That's totally uncharted political water.

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