Struggling poor, middle class still hold strong values

The booming stock market is of little solace to middle-class Americans, who continue to express concern about their financial security and the overall condition of the U.S. economy. The poor are even more bearish, surveys show.

In fact, after falling significantly behind in the Great Recession, less-affluent Americans have continued to lose ground in what has technically been the economic recovery.

In the years since the recession officially ended in June 2009, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of recently released Census Bureau data.

Yet even in the depths of the recession and the difficult recovery, middle-class and lower-income Americans remained optimistic about the future of the country and their own long-term personal prospects. They acknowledged the truth of rising inequality and expressed frustration over what they saw as a political and economic system that gave unfair advantages to those who were already ahead. There was no sign, however, that class resentments were increasing.

In a newly released report for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Renewing America series, we found little indication that beliefs in the efficacy of hard work, individualism and potential for personal progress have eroded in response to the struggling recovery of the past four years.

This finding is contrary to worries expressed by the social scientist Charles Murray and others that American civic culture is at risk of breaking down at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. In his book “Coming Apart,” Murray argues that poorer Americans are losing social bonds to hard work, family values and community.

Yet over the past 25 years, value trends find no widening of the division between the upper middle class and working class with respect to self-confidence, individualism and a sense of personal empowerment. Poorer and richer Americans differ on questions of opportunity and the role of government, yet these gaps have neither grown nor shrunk since the late 1980s.

Those in the lowest quartile of household income — earning less than $20,000 a year — are twice as likely as those in the highest quartile to say that “hard work offers little guarantee of success” (46 percent versus 23 percent). But that gap is no wider today than it was 25 years ago.

Middle and lower-class Americans continue to see their lives as better than those of their parents, and they expect that their children will be better off than they are.

When it comes to views of the free market, seven in 10 Americans across income and educational lines say the strength of the U.S. today is mostly based on the success of American business.

What about the effects of hard times on U.S. civic culture? Statistics on marriage and divorce, single parenting, disability rates and personal bankruptcies reflect many challenges that working-class Americans face in the modern economy. But any inference that these trends point to an erosion of core values isn’t supported by polls.

Rather, Pew surveys find no evidence that lower-income and less-well-educated Americans value patriotism, religion or family any less than they ever have.

If anything, less-affluent Americans are more convinced of the importance of work than are more economically successful Americans. A 2008 Pew study found 69 percent of low-income Americans agreeing that “being successful in a career” was very important to them personally, compared with 58 percent of upper- income Americans.

Lower-income Americans also place greater importance on a wage earner being able to support a family financially than do affluent workers. Poorer Americans also register a stronger commitment to religion than upper-class Americans do — a division that has neither widened nor narrowed over the past 25 years.

Most high-, middle- and low-income citizens share the same concerns about becoming too dependent on government, and have the same worries about the state of the American work ethic.

Nor are there substantial class divides when it comes to volunteerism and a sense of community. Roughly half of both high-income (54 percent) and low-income (56 percent) Americans say that doing volunteer work or donating to charity is very important to them personally, and big majorities of both groups say that everyone has a duty to be involved in community activities to address local issues.

One of Charles Murray’s most scathing assessments of working-class values was on the decline of marriage as an institution. Marriage-dissolution rates are higher and out-of- marriage births have grown substantially among the poor, while remaining lower among the wealthy. Yet lower-income Americans are about as likely as those with higher incomes to rate marriage and children as very important to them. Roughly the same percentage of upper- and lower-income Americans with children report having family meals together.

The point here isn’t to understate the financial concerns and burdens on poor people and the middle class as they have weathered hard times. Nor is it to debate a long-standing contention of many economists and others that lower-income Americans are deluding themselves about their future prospects.

Our analyses simply indicate that people’s difficulties haven’t undermined their values and long-term optimism. And among poor Americans specifically, there is little evidence that they feel sorry for themselves, or see themselves as economically doomed or morally adrift.

Andrew Kohut is the founding director and former president of the Pew Research Center. Michael Dimock is the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. They are co-authors of “Resilient American Values: Optimism in an Era of Growing Inequality and Economic Difficulty,” part of the Renewing America series of the Council on Foreign Relations.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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