Middle class remains optimistic despite economic woes

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Our findings will not surprise you: a large and growing percentage of middle-class Americans believe both the country and the economy are going in the wrong direction. A miniscule number trust our major institutions, our elected leaders, or in our ability to work together to solve problems. A majority believes that achieving and maintaining a middle-class lifestyle is much harder than it has been in prior generations. 

Yet, in the very same polls, a majority have told us they are currently living the American Dream and believe it is achievable for those who work hard for it; that they are optimistic about their futures; that they are very strongly committed to the free market system; and, that the primary driver of their personal success will be their own abilities and hard work.

Why the collective pessimism and the personal optimism? I think a large part of the answer lies in the data from our polls, including one we just took in part to look more closely at this very question.

First, average Americans are now much more mindful of the value of minimizing their debt, saving more and investing more wisely. Last year more than half told us that they now view debt as a significant obstacle to achieving the American Dream. I doubt that data point would have been the same five years ago. Sixty percent told us that they were cutting back spending on non-essential expenditures. We may be beginning to see a shift in perspectives and behavior towards personal finance that is both helping families cope and providing confidence for the future. 

Next, in a poll taken just in the last 30 days, we learned that a very significant percentage (almost 40 percent) of the middle class has experienced upward class movement in their lifetime. 56 percent of those in the upper middle class say they have previously been in a lower class. Only 20 percent say they are in a lower class than their parents. Over 50 percent of the middle class expects to be in a higher class sometime in the future. No wonder they believe in the American Dream: they have done better in their lifetime.

Finally, Americans understand that for all of our faults and challenges as a nation, the arc of history that bends towards more inclusion and opportunity is ongoing in America and will make life better for most people.

For example, among the greatest cultural shifts in our lifetimes is the fact we are becoming a majority/minority nation. We asked people whether this will help them or hurt them. A majority said: this will not be easy, there will be frictions, but a more racially and ethnically diverse America will be a stronger and more prosperous and competitive nation for all of us.

Likewise another huge shift is the number and impact of women in the economy. The number of working women exceeds the number of men, more women now graduate from college, the growth sectors favor women, and more men lost their jobs in this downturn than women. Yet when we polled on this huge shift, a majority of men and women said they are encouraged by the changing gender makeup of the workplace and that we will all benefit from the talents and skills that women offer.

The truth is that Americans are living in a world of hurt and hope at the same time, and our polls reflect that. But there is no doubt they'd believe in the country’s future again in a heartbeat if given half a chance.

Walker is executive vice president at Allstate Corporation.