6-in-10 Millennials Believe they are Worse Off than their Parents’ Generation
WASHINGTON — Greed, lack of equal opportunity, poverty and lasting inequality are the reasons more than 4-in-10 (42 percent) Americans say capitalism is not working well, a major new national survey finds. The survey, which explores Americans’ views on faith, values and the economy, also finds that only the oldest Americans believe they are better off than their parents’ generation.
Americans who believe capitalism is not working well cite the encouragement of greed (34 percent), the lack of equal opportunities (28 percent), the creation of poverty (14 percent) or the creation of lasting inequalities (11 percent) as the reason behind their view, the new Economic Values Survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Brookings Institution finds.
On the other hand, the 54 percent of Americans who think that capitalism is working well (45 percent somewhat well, 9 percent well) report believing so because the economic system encourages personal responsibility (33 percent), provides equal opportunities for everyone (29 percent), promotes individual freedom (24 percent) or creates wealth (11 percent).
“The idea that America is an opportunity society is a longstanding bedrock belief,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute. “But striking numbers of Americans, especially younger Americans, have become pessimistic about their prospects for economic mobility and doubt that hard work leads to success.”
Americans are generally pessimistic about upward economic mobility, the new survey finds. Only in the oldest generation of Americans – those in the Silent Generation (ages 66-88) – do a majority believe they are better off than their parents’ generation (59 percent). By contrast, 6-in-10 (58 percent) Millennials (ages 18-33) believe they are worse off than their parents’ generation.
“Americans who are higher on the socio-economic ladder believe it is easier to move up than those closer to the bottom,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI Research Director. “Most low-income Americans do not believe that hard work alone is enough to guarantee success.”
A majority of Americans (54 percent) also agree that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people, while 45 percent disagree. The survey finds, however, that there is substantial disagreement based on income level. Fifty-nine percent of Americans with annual household incomes of $30,000 or less believe that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success, a view held by nearly a half (48 percent) of Americans with annual household incomes of $100,000 or more.
“In terms of policy, there is strikingly broad support among religious Americans for a progressive approach to social justice,” said E.J. Dionne, Brookings senior fellow. “But this view is linked with a strong commitment to personal responsibility and a certain skepticism about what government can achieve.”
Americans generally think the government should do more to increase equal opportunity, the survey finds. More than 6-in-10 Americans (63 percent) agree that government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor. Nearly the same number (62 percent) say it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves. While white Protestants are divided on both of these questions, majorities of every other major religious group and the religiously unaffiliated agree that the government has a responsibility to act in these areas.
However, Americans have little confidence in the government’s ability to function well. Less than one-third of Americans believe the federal government is either generally working (7 percent) or working with some major problems (24 percent). Roughly two-thirds say the federal government is broken but working in some areas (40 percent) or completely broken (26 percent).
“In principle, Americans would like government to correct some imperfections of capitalism and free markets,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Bill Galston, “but their doubts about government’s ability to act effectively pull them in the other direction.
Among the findings:
The four most important economic issues cited by Americans today are the lack of jobs (26 percent), the budget deficit (17 percent), the rising cost of health care (18 percent), and the increasing gap between the rich and poor (15 percent). About 1-in-10 say that social security (9 percent) or the rising cost of education (9 percent) is the country’s most important economic problem.
- While roughly one-quarter of Republicans (26 percent) and Democrats (25 percent) say the lack of jobs is America’s most important economic problem, Republicans and Democrats strongly differ in their views of the importance of the budget deficit (31 percent vs. 7 percent most important) and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor (6 percent vs. 21 percent most important).
A majority (56 percent) of Americans also believe the government should guarantee health insurance for all citizens, even if it would require tax increases.
A majority of Americans (53 percent) believe that “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.” By contrast, nearly 4-in-10 (39 percent) agree that “it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.”
- Nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Democrats and a majority of independents (54 percent) agree that one of the biggest problems in this country is that we do not give everyone an equal chance in life. By contrast, a majority of Republicans (58 percent) and Americans who identify with the Tea Party (57 percent) think that it is not really a big problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.
Americans are divided on the economic impact of family structure and instability. Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans agree that family instability and the decline of two-parent families is a primary cause of America’s current economic problems, while an equal number (49 percent) disagree.
- There are significant racial and ethnic divisions. About 6-in-10 Hispanic Americans (62 percent) agree that family instability and the decline of the two-parent family are primary causes of America’s current economic problems, while white Americans are divided (49 percent agree, 48 percent disagree). Roughly 6-in-10 (59 percent) black Americans disagree that family instability and the decline of two-parent families is the primary cause of America’s current economic problems.
There is a broad consensus about the values that should guide the government’s economic policy, with approximately 8-in-10 Americans in agreement that promoting freedom and liberty (86 percent), encouraging people to live more responsible lives (86 percent), and promoting equality and fairness (79 percent) are extremely important or very important values for guiding government economic policy. More than 6-in-10 Americans cite providing a public safety net for people facing hardships (64 percent) as an extremely or very important guide, while fewer Americans (59 percent) say the same of supporting private charity for the poor.
Americans are nearly evenly divided on whether capitalism and the free market system are consistent with (41 percent) or at odds with (44 percent) Christian values. There are only modest differences among religious groups in views about American capitalism’s compatibility with Christian values.
On questions related to economic policy and the role of government, religious progressives generally hold similar views to nonreligious Americans and religious moderates, while religious conservatives stand apart. For example, 37 percent of religious conservatives agree that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, compared to 69 percent of religious moderates, 72 percent of the nonreligious, and nearly 9-in-10 (88 percent) religious progressives.
The Economic Values Survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with The Brookings Institution. Results from the survey were based on 2,002 bilingual (Spanish and English) telephone interviews of adults 18 years of age and older, including 800 respondents who were interviewed on cell phones. The margin of error for the survey is +/‐ 2.6 percentage points.