Many people also still harbor an enduring faith that hard work is the surest path to success. In the poll, just one-third say it is no guarantee of success, while two-thirds say most people can get ahead financially through effort. In fact, hard work and education are rated far more highly than social connections, growing up wealthy or natural ability as factors leading to financial success.
But many Americans are questioning old assumptions and changing how they define success.
The luster of homeownership, which had been shorthand for the American Dream, is fading, with more than a quarter of all homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their properties are worth. Slightly more than half of current homeowners say owning a house is a cornerstone of the American Dream, down from 80 percent a quarter-century ago.
And while education is still seen as a critical part of getting ahead, the dream of a college degree has lost some of its appeal over three decades. Just over half now say going to college is very much part of the American Dream, down from 68 percent who said this in 1986. More than three-quarters say it has become more difficult to pay for college in the past few years, and over half believe colleges are not doing enough to prepare students to find jobs in today’s economy.
“There are some good jobs in America, but if you don’t have the skills for them, you have to go to college, which nobody can afford,” said Phil Barry, 44, an information technician from Spotsylvania, Va. Although he has two years of college education, Barry said he counts himself lucky to have gained most of his job skills during his Army career.
An intensifying struggle
Many Americans say they have not recovered from the recession of 2007 to 2009, according to the poll of 1,509 adults. The survey was a joint project of The Washington Post and the Miller Center, a nonpartisan institute affiliated with the University of Virginia that specializes in public policy, presidential scholarship and political history.
Jim Butterwick, 61, used to own a graphic design and illustration business in Forty Fort, Pa., and was planning an expansion. Then his biggest account sent him a fax telling him his services were no longer needed. He kept the business going for a few years but eventually closed up shop and found a job as a substitute art teacher, making $75 a day. Four years ago, he was hired permanently at a middle school, but with the growth of competing charter schools, he does not feel secure.
“I think the safety nets that everybody counts on, like Social Security, are slowly being dismantled,” he said. “We’re told almost every day to lower our expectations. I’m not sure if I can retire at 66. I think I might have to work a lot longer.”