The goal of this exercise is to compare people's attitudes about the American Dream with their experiences of upward mobility at the turn of the 21st century. Crosstabulation will be used.
The ideology of the American Dream pervades US society and culture and, as such, has long been of interest to sociologists. The phrase "American Dream" was coined in 1931 by author James Truslow Adams, who defined it as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement ... It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." The American Dream has come to signify both the hope and the promise of material prosperity and happiness, predicated on the deep-seated belief in the egalitarian philosophy that, with strenuous effort, anyone can improve one's economic and social circumstances.
Social scientists have been interested in the American Dream for the profound ways in which it has shaped social behaviors, relationships, and policies in the US. The ideology of the American Dream tends to focus upon individual behavior and opportunity while downplaying the importance of structural factors in life outcomes. This narrow focus tends to undermine support for policies aimed at alleviating race and class injustice. It has also been linked to overinflated and unrealistic expectations of upward mobility. This, according to some sociologists, creates strain for some social groups and increases the likelihood that people will turn to illegitimate means (e.g. crime) of achieving the cultural goal of material success.
In this exercise, we will examine whether people still believe in the American Dream near the close of the 20th century, and whether their experiences of upward mobility are consistent with this ideology.
Examples of research questions about the American Dream:
This exercise will use the 1996 ABC News Listening to America Poll.This special topic poll, conducted April 30 to May 6, 1996, is part of a continuing series of monthly surveys that solicit public opinion on the presidency and on a range of other political and social issues. This poll sought Americans' views on the most important problems facing the United States, their local communities and their own families. Respondents rated the public schools, crime, and drug problems at the national and local levels, their level of optimism about their own future and that of the country, and the reasons they felt that way. Respondents were asked whether they were better off financially than their parents were at their age, whether they expected their own children to be better off financially than they were, and whether the American Dream was still possible for most people. Respondents then compared their expectations about life to their actual experiences in areas such as employment, health care benefits, retirement savings, and leisure time. Additional topics covered immigration policy and the extent to which respondents trusted the federal, state, and local governments. Demographic variables included respondents' sex, age, race, education level, marital status, household income, political party affiliation, political philosophy, voter registration and participation history, labor union membership, the presence of children in the household, whether these children attended a public school, and the employment status of respondents and their spouses.
List of variables used:
Our objective is to examine whether people still believe in the American Dream near the close of the 20th century, and whether their experiences of upward mobility are consistent with this ideology.
Do people still believe in the American Dream?
This dataset contains two different measures of attitudes about the American Dream. The
first one (Q9) asks respondents whether they think that "the American Dream is still
possible for most people." In the second one (Q19B), they are asked whether they believe
that "if you work hard, you will get ahead." Let us take a look at the
To explore this further, we created a series of crosstabs of Q9 ("the American Dream is still possible for most people"), with race (Q918), sex (Q921), age (AGERECODE) and political party affiliation (Q901) respectively. Note that the variable Q918, "Race", contains six categories: "White," "Black," "White Hispanic," "Black Hispanic," "Hispanic (no race given)" and "Other race." For ease of analysis, we collapsed the categories from six to four: "White," "Black," "Hispanic" and "Other." The recoded variable is called "RACE."
Please study the results of the
We then repeated the previous analyses,
To what extent does the ideal of the American Dream match the reality of people's experiences of upward mobility?
Let us now explore potential measures of social mobility. Respondents were asked, "Are
you better off financially than your parents were at your age?" (Q10). The
We might also consider a more objective measure of social mobility by examining
educational attainment. Educational attainment is often used as a measure of social
mobility and class because it is closely related to occupation and income. In this
dataset, the variable measuring education level is Q909. It contains 6 categories: "8th
grade or less"; "some high school"; "graduated high school"; "some college"; "graduated
college"; and "post-graduate." We recoded this variable into four categories: "less than
high school diploma"; "graduated high school"; "some college"; "graduated college or
more." The new variable is called
We also used a slightly different variable for age in the next set of analyses because
many of the youngest respondents in the sample's youngest age group are too young to
have completed college or a post-graduate degree. These respondents may also be too
young to have had many job opportunities or work experience. Therefore we chose to
exclude those younger than age 25 from the next four analyses. To create the variable
We created a crosstab with EDUCATION and AGEGROUPS. Now please look at the results of the
In addition respondents were asked whether they "had to work harder than expected" (Q12).
Please examine the results of the
Did respondents have more job opportunities than they expected (Q16)? According to the
results of the
To see whether respondents were hopeful about their children's future, we used variable
Q11 (Do you think that your children will be better off than you?) in a
What percentage of respondents said that the American Dream is still possible for most people? What percentage agreed that "if you work hard, you will get ahead?"
What percentage of Hispanics expressed support for the idea that the American Dream is still possible for most people? How does this compare to other racial groups? Were men or women more likely to say that the American Dream is still possible? Are there significant differences between the age groups in the sample? Which age group was most likely to say that the American Dream is still possible? Finally, what percentage of Republican respondents indicated that the American Dream is not possible anymore? What percentage of Democrats felt the same way?
What percentage of Black respondents disagreed that if one works hard, one can get ahead? Were men or women more likely to agree? What percentage of respondents older than 60 agreed? Which political group expressed the highest level of disagreement with the statement?
What percentage of respondents over age 60 said they were better off financially than their parents? Which age group was most likely to say that they are not better off financially?
What percentage of 31-44 yr-olds in the sample graduated high school, but did not take at least some college courses? Is this significantly different from other age groups? Which age group is most likely to have graduated college or more? Overall, would you say that the education level appears to have increased, decreased, or remained the same from one generation to the next?
What percentage of 25-30 year-olds indicated that they had to work harder than they expected? How does this compare with respondents in the other age groups?
What percentage of respondents over 60 years old indicated that they had more job opportunities than they expected? How does this compare with respondents in other age groups? Can you think of a possible reason older respondents have had such a different job experience?
Which age group was most likely to indicate that they thought their children would be better off? Are there significant differences between the groups? Do the results surprise you in light of earlier analyses?
Things to think about in interpreting the results:
The numbers in each cell of the crosstabulation tables show the percentage of the people who fall into the overlapping categories, followed by the actual number of people that represents in this sample. The coloring in the tables demonstrates how the observed numbers in each cell compares to the expected number if there were no association between the two variables. The accompanying bar charts display the patterns visually as well.
Weights (mathematical formulas) are often used to adjust the sample proportions, usually by race, sex, or age, to more closely match those of the general population. The analyses in this guide used weights to increase the generalizability of the findings, so the resulting tables are meant to reflect the relationships we would expect to see in the general population.
Reading the results:
The goal of this exercise was to compare people's attitudes about the American Dream with their experiences of upward mobility at the turn of the 21st century. Taken together, the results show that belief in the American Dream is influenced, quite significantly in some cases, by race, sex, age and political affiliation. Interestingly, the American Dream ideology appears enduringly strong, even though it might be incongruous with the realities of respondents' experiences of upward mobility (or lack thereof). Indeed, while it appears that the education level has increased over the past 50 years, these gains are not reflected in easier access to employment for younger generations.
Further research might explore this paradox, perhaps by examining more closely the influence of demographic characteristics such as race or sex on one's ability to achieve upward mobility.