NEW POLL: Middle Class More Anxious than Aspirational
16th Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll Shows Americans Walking a Tightrope between Optimism and a "Fear of Falling Behind"
While the American middle class is still optimistic about getting ahead, they have become increasingly fearful that they may fall behind, according to poll results released today by The Allstate Corporation (NYSE: ALL) and National Journal.
[Watch a live briefing on the latest Heartland Monitor Poll TODAY at 9am ET at http://www.nationaljournal.com/events.]
The 16th quarterly Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll focuses on the American middle class and seeks to uncover important insights about how this cornerstone economic group perceives the future. The poll asks Americans to define what it means to be part of the middle class, based on income, financial security, education and lifestyle. Unsurprisingly, many Americans (46 percent) identify as middle class and almost all Americans (85 percent) consider themselves a part of an expanded definition of being middle class that includes upper middle class (12 percent), and lower middle class (26 percent).
The most recent Heartland Monitor Poll also identifies renewed concern about the country's recovery and an increase in skepticism toward major political and business institutions. Specifically, the mood of the country has worsened with only 29 percent of respondents believing the U.S. is headed in the "right direction," a considerable decline from a three-year high of 41 percent recorded in November 2012. Democrats' optimism has decreased by 23 points to 54 percent in the most recent data, while just 32 percent of the middle class feel the country is headed in the right direction.
"Over the last four years, Americans' views in this poll have been consistently right about the economy. Today, they are sounding the alarm bell that the economy is not on track for sustainable growth. More affordable college education, job creation and stability are seen as key priorities," said Thomas J. Wilson, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Allstate. "The blame is spread wide and far, from politicians to business leaders. Americans are crying out for leaders to work together to create a path to economic prosperity. We should listen and act now."
Heartland Monitor XVI reveals that public opinion is narrowly balanced between hopes of economic improvement and fears about falling behind. Nearly three-in-five middle class Americans (59 percent) say they are concerned about falling out of their economic class. The attributes Americans have historically seen as safeguards for middle class families such as educational attainment and responsible financial planning are now considered by many to be unrealistic or only attainable by the upper class. At the same time, Americans remain optimistic about the potential to move up the economic ladder at some point in the future; this is especially true among Millennials, African Americans and Hispanics, whom view economic opportunity as being on the horizon.
The new poll shows that there is now a sense that the term ‘middle class' has now been redefined to mean not falling behind, rather than upward mobility and material possessions. Americans mostly blame decisions made by political leaders and major business institutions over the past few decades for wages falling behind living expenses. In fact, Americans believe the government and private sector (local business excluded) are actually making the economic situation worse for the middle class. The latest Heartland Monitor shows that 64 percent of Americans believe Congress has made things worse for the middle class, while a mere 8 percent believe legislators are making things better. It's not much better in the private sector, 55 percent of Americans think major financial institutions are making things worse and 54 percent of Americans believe CEOs of major U.S. corporations are hurting the economy as well.
Americans are clear with their prescriptions for policymakers with more than half (55 percent) preferring lawmakers to take an approach that invests in long-term job planning and growth in favor of initiatives that temporarily alleviates day-to-day expenses (38 percent). Among a list of policy preferences favored by Americans as a prescription for improving the middle class, improving access to and lowering the cost of higher education ranked as the most important (38 percent). Although most Americans still consider a college education to be an important hallmark of middle-class status, many now feel it is affordable only for the upper class (49 percent).
"Americans still believe they can reach for the stars—but are increasingly concerned that they are standing on a trap door as they do," said Ronald Brownstein, editorial director for National Journal. "The survey suggests that after years of economic turmoil, most U.S. families now believe the most valuable, and elusive, possession in American life is not any tangible acquisition, like a house or a car, but rather economic security. Even while capturing the durability of the belief that individuals can better their circumstances, these results also pointedly remind us how much economic anxiety and political alienation still shadows American life, even after the darkest clouds of the Great Recession have lifted."
Key findings from the 16th Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll (PDF) include:
1. Who is the middle class? A broad definition includes nearly everyone, and a more narrowly defined grouping includes a diverse mix of incomes and socioeconomic backgrounds.
- 46% of Americans truly considers themselves "middle class," placing themselves on the middle rung of a five-tier economic class system which includes upper class, upper middle, middle class, lower middle, and lower class.
- 85% of American adults consider themselves as part of an expanded definition of middle class. One in four (26%) identifies as lower middle class, while 12% calls themselves upper middle class.
- 12% of Americans consider themselves to be lower class, 2% identify as upper class.
- Americans believe a typical middle-class family makes between $60k and $65k per year – actual estimates indicate the median income for an average family of four is $68,274.
2. The American middle class is anxious and in flux. While many dream of upward mobility, most are concerned about falling out of their economic class.
- 59% of Americans say they're concerned about falling out of their economic class over the next few years
- More than half (52%) of Americans say the biggest risk factor for falling out of their economic status is losing a job or income source
- 55% of middle-class Americans had parents who were not in the middle class, and more than half (51%) have been outside the middle class in their own lifetime. Overall, there's been a clear upward tack in economic status. There are more Americans who have moved up into the middle class from the previous generation or within their own lifetimes than slid down the ladder.
- 42% of middle-class parents with children under 18 years believe their kids will be upper middle or upper class when they grow up.
3. Americans believe the key to staying in or moving into the middle class is by attaining a higher level of education, but find it increasingly unaffordable.
- 50% of all Americans and 51% of the middle class consider higher education to be the most effective way to protect and earn middle-class standing.
- While many middle-class Americans face concerns about their ability to pay for a college education for their children, it follows that Americans are turning to elected officials for a solution to this widening gap in access to higher education.
4. For many, being middle class now means financial security rather than material items or financial growth, and it means keeping from falling behind in an uncertain and challenging economy.
- A solid majority (54%) of Americans believes that being middle class today means keeping up with expenses and holding a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt. Just 43% think that middle class means having the opportunity for financial and professional growth, buying a home, and saving and investing for the future.
- Seen as most "out of reach" for the middle class are paying for a child's college education, retiring comfortably, and having enough money to weather a health or income emergency. At least 40% of middle class Americans believe these things are only realistic for the upper class.
- One-quarter to one-third of middle class Americans believe that yearly vacations, regular income increases, affording quality healthcare, and having job security are only manageable for the upper class.
5. Americans want policymakers and businesses to focus on actions that increase economic opportunities, create jobs, and make education attainable and affordable. However, major institutions are seen as hurting, not helping, the American middle class.
- 55% of Americans prefer a governing approach that seeks to increase economic growth, job creation, and opportunity over an approach that makes daily expenses, health care, education, and retirement more affordable (38%).
- Americans believe that the country's political leadership is making things worse for the middle class.
- 64% believe Congress is making things worse, and 8% think it's making things better
- 45% believe President Obama is making things worse, and 36% believe he is making things better.
- 54% of Americans believe CEOs of major U.S. corporations are making things worse
- 55% say major financial institutions are making things worse
6. After a momentary upswing in national optimism and goodwill, Americans have renewed concerns about the economy and about the nation's political leadership.
- The mood of the country has fallen to 29% "right direction," down from a three-year high of 41% in our late-November survey.
- Democrats' optimism has decreased by more than 20 points, from 77% in our last poll to 54% in most recent data.
- Among the middle class, just 32% think things are headed in the right direction.
Notes to Editors
National Sample of 1,000 ADULTS AGE 18+
With a Breakout of 464 Self-Identified Middle Class
(Sample Margin of Error for 1,000 Respondents = ±3.1% in 95 out of 100 cases)
Conducted April 5-9, 2013 via Landline and Cell Phone
The Allstate Corporation (NYSE: ALL) is the nation's largest publicly held personal lines insurer, serving approximately 16 million households through its Allstate, Encompass, Esurance and Answer Financial brand names and Allstate Financial business segment. Allstate branded insurance products (auto, home, life and retirement) and services are offered through Allstate agencies, independent agencies, and Allstate exclusive financial representatives, as well as via www.allstate.com, www.allstate.com/financial and 1-800 Allstate®, and are widely known through the slogan "You're In Good Hands With Allstate®." As part of Allstate's commitment to strengthen local communities, The Allstate Foundation, Allstate employees, agency owners and the corporation provided $29 million in 2012 to thousands of nonprofit organizations and important causes across the United States. For an overview of the other Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Polls, visit www.theheartlandvoice.com.
About National Journal Group
National Journal is Washington's premier source for 360-degree insight on politics and policy. With up-to-the-minute breaking news and analysis at NationalJournal.com, the essential intelligence of National Journal Daily, the knowledge and depth of National Journal magazine, and the comprehensive campaign coverage of National Journal Hotline, National Journal delivers everything you need to know to stay ahead of the curve in Washington.
About FTI Consulting
FTI Consulting, Inc. is a global business advisory firm dedicated to helping organizations protect and enhance enterprise value in an increasingly complex legal, regulatory and economic environment. With more than 3,900 employees located in 24 countries, FTI Consulting professionals work closely with clients to anticipate, illuminate and overcome complex business challenges in areas such as investigations, litigation, mergers and acquisitions, regulatory issues, reputation management, strategic communications and restructuring. The company generated $1.58 billion in revenues during fiscal year 2012. More information can be found at www.fticonsulting.com.
Kari Mather, Allstate
Matthew Clark, FTI Consulting
Ben Fishel, National Journal Group