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.