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Californians asked about the American dream say it’s dying

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Survey of more than 3,300 residents find most Golden State denizens have little faith in their own prospects

View of San Francisco from the top of a set of mosaic stairs. Photo by Chris LaBasco

On Tuesday, the Public Religion Research Institute—a Washington DC-based nonprofit—released the results of a survey asking more than 3,300 Californians gauging public attitudes about work, the economy, and the American dream.

The results were pretty grim statewide, with one exception: Those polled in the Bay Area tend to be much more optimistic about their chances in the Golden State compared to Californians in surrounding regions.

Some illustrative examples from the data:

  • Californians don’t believed in the “American dream”: Asked whether they believed those who work hard will eventually get ahead, a plurality 47 percent of workers statewide said yes. However, another 43 percent said that this was true in the past but no longer the case. And 10 percent are of the opinion it was never true in the first place.
  • Neither does the Bay Area: Despite the fact that Bay Area residents say they’re better off financially than the rest of the state, local figures are slightly worse for the American dream question: only 45 percent still believe in it, versus 44 percent who say it’s come and gone and 11 percent who believe it was a myth in the first place.
  • Bay Area more likely to believe in the “California dream”: Asked whether it’s easier to get ahead in California versus other states, only 16 percent of California workers agreed. Fifty-five percent said it’s harder here. In the Bay Area the number of those who say easier is slightly higher—18 percent—but so too is the number of those who call it harder: 59 percent.
  • Most Californians ready to tell others to “go east”: Overall, some 64 percent of those polled across the state would advise younger people to try their luck getting ahead in some other state. The only exception to this trend was in the Bay Area, where 55 percent advised people stay here and give California a shot.
Photo by f11photo
  • Good times are still rolling here: Notably, California had the smallest number of employed workers who describe themselves as struggling with poverty, just 27 percent. For comparison, the next lowest number statewide was on the southern border, with 45 percent.
  • Finally, overall only 40 percent of Californians in the survey believe they’re better off financially than the average America. In the Bay Area, however, that figure jumps up to 57 percent.

What the survey does not record, of course, is the likely survivorship bias at work: Bay Area residents are probably more likely to feel that they’re more financially secure because those who do not are more likely to have already left.

But correcting for that kind of existential error is tricky. For the full poll results, including more gradient examinations of the different attitudes across racial and poverty lines, go here.