Is economic reality wiping out the American dream?

The U.S. economy has been showing signs of more robust recovery, but many Americans say they're not feeling it. A new poll by The New York Times found the public is more pessimistic than it was right after the financial collapse. Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times joins Judy Woodruff to discuss American perceptions of economic mobility and inequality.

Read the Full Transcript


    By many measures, the U.S. economy seems to have picked up steam this year. And the most recent jobs report saw the best results since January 2012.

    But many Americans say they are still doubtful about economic opportunity and the ability to move up the ladder. In fact, a new poll by The New York Times found the public is more pessimistic than it was right after the financial collapse. Just 64 percent of those surveyed said they still believed it was possible to become wealthy if they started out poor.

    That's a pronounced drop from 2009 and the lowest level in two decades. The poll also sampled opinions with some surprising answers on a range of economic issues.

    Andrew Ross Sorkin, a columnist for The New York Times and editor at large of its DealBook section, joins us now. He also co-hosts Squawk Box on CNBC.

    Welcome back to the NewsHour.

    You know, we have been seeing, I guess, coming off the midterm elections that Americans don't feel good about the economy, despite the statistics that say otherwise. But this poll that The Times has done suggests a much deeper, long-term kind of pessimism.

    How do you explain it?

  • ANDREW ROSS SORKIN, The New York Times:

    Well, you know, we wanted to try to look at this concept of the American dream, this concept of mobility, of starting poor and really becoming rich.

    We also asked people what they thought rich meant, and I would tell you we thought some of those answers were quite surprising. You don't need to be a millionaire in this country to be considered rich. About 25 percent, 26 percent of the respondents said, if you can make $100,000 or $200,000, that was very wealthy in this country.

    But we wanted to look into that mobility issue, and so many people repeatedly said they didn't think that mobility existed in the same way that they thought it might have existed before. And, frankly, what was most surprising about it was that people thought that they had a better shot even three years ago, after the financial crisis.

    And I think that it's really a demonstration of the tale of two countries, if you will, when it comes to the economy that we have seen over the past years, which really goes to this larger issue of inequality.


    Well, in fact, one of the questions that to me stood out was you asked people whether they think the U.S. economic system is fair, in other words, that all Americans have an equal opportunity to succeed, or basically unfair, that not everybody has an equal opportunity. What did you find there?


    Well, a slim majority, 52 percent thought it was fair. So we live, again, in a country where half the country thinks it's fair, half the country doesn't.

    The most interesting and perhaps telling piece of that, though, is we also looked at how — what your own income was when you answered that question. And if you were considered — I don't if we even call it — necessarily say rich, but the more money that you earned in any given year, the more likely you were, as you might imagine, to think that it was fair.

    One note on the American dream, though. There are two — you know, we always talk about this idea of the American dream. There might actually be two American dreams. There's the Mark Zuckerberg American dream, which is that anyone can start — Horatio Alger. You can start in your garage and shoot the moon.

    And I got the sense just from the interviews we did that people think that American dream is still very much alive and well, that that's possible. But what's less possible is this other American dream, which was that if you worked hard and you got an education, that you're going to get a jock, that you're going to get a house, that you will get married and get two kids, the "Leave it to Beaver" American dream.

    And I think that is the American dream that people feel today is so challenged.


    And there were so many. That was interesting.

    And then at the other end of the spectrum, I was struck too that you asked people whether they think it's a bigger problem that there's too much regulation by government that is slowing down business or not enough. And it looks like, as we see here, they worry about over-regulation.


    That also was very surprising, given this issue that people — so many people in the country thought it was unfair. At the same time, they are worried about over-regulation. They are worried about the economy, and they want the economy, I think, just from our interviews, so desperately to grow, and to the extent that they're worried that regulation could be holding that back, which is surprising, because on the flip side, there's a lot of people who say too little regulation is what has created this inequality in the country.

    Having said all of that, I will tell you, we did an interview today with Paul Singer, the investor, large hedge fund investor, and he made a persuasive argument that so much of this is not just the politics in Washington, but what has happened at the Federal Reserve, which is to say that with all these low interest rates, the great beneficiaries have been those who own assets. If they own a home or you already own stocks in the stock market, you have benefited.

    If you have not had that opportunity, it's — it has exacerbated the schism between these groups.


    Injecting the Federal Reserve in there.

    Just finally, Andrew Ross Sorkin, you were at this conference today. You talk to smart businesspeople all the time. Are they seeing anything out there that's going to change this trend, that can give people hope that wages are going to grow, opportunity is going to grow?


    I will tell you, actually, this was a very hopeful group, perhaps much more surprisingly so than where we were with the poll.

    And the issue came back over and over again to energy in this country. And we have seen oil prices drop in this country, and that is the equivalent almost of a tax savings for Americans of all stripes, and that money is going to go back into people's pocket and hopefully ends up getting spent in a meaningful way.

    Everybody that we spoke to today thinks that oil prices are going to continue to go lower. That can create all sorts of other geopolitical issues and risks for countries like Russia and Venezuela and the Middle East and elsewhere, but, at least here, people were very optimistic.


    A lot to pick over here.

    Andrew Ross Sorkin, we thank you.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment