How Income Colors Your View of America

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Success breeds optimism and struggle breeds pessimism if Americans’ salaries are any indicator, a new New York Times/CBS News poll shows.

Americans in general are divided over the availability of good jobs, with 46 percent of people saying the country’s best employment years are in the past and 47 percent saying the best years are in the future.

Americans in households earning less than $50,000 a year are more likely to take the pessimistic view, while members of households earning $100,000 or more are especially likely to take the optimistic view.

People in households earning less than $50,000 also feel less secure that they can continue in their jobs as long as they wish compared with higher-earning households.

The same pattern held when respondents were asked about success and the distribution of wealth: People in households earning less than $50,000 are least likely to feel that “anyone has a fair chance” at getting ahead. By contrast, people in households earning $100,000 or more are least likely to feel that “only those at the top” have a fair chance.

A person’s chances of getting ahead can vary widely based on where one grows up, a recent study by Harvard economists found.

For example, moving to DuPage County, Illinois — a western Chicago suburb — to raise a child was found to boost the child’s future income by about 15 percent (the best rate among the 100 largest counties) compared with living in an average community.

A move to Baltimore City, Maryland, hurts a child’s future income by 17 percent, the study found. (Check out “How Our ZIP Codes Affect Our Children’s Futures” to learn more.)

In the U.S. overall, a person’s chances of rising from the bottom 20 percent of income earners to the top 20 percent are lower than in other first-world countries, the same Harvard researchers found:

  • United States: 7.5 percent chance
  • United Kingdom: 9 percent
  • Denmark: 11.7 percent
  • Canada: 13.5 percent

Raj Chetty, a Harvard University economics professor who co-authored the research, recently told a gathering at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., that your chances of achieving the “American dream” are almost two times higher if you grow up in Canada.

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