Americans Overwhelmingly Pessimistic About the Economy, Says TIME/Money Magazine Survey

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It’s not often that the majority of Americans agrees about, well, pretty much anything. But based on a joint series of surveys conducted on the behalf of TIME and Money magazines, there’s near unanimity among Americans that the economy’s in bad shape—and relatively few have confidence that things will get better anytime soon.

In the TIME/Money Americans’ Financial Values Survey, which polled thousands of U.S. residents in August and September of 2011, only 6% of respondents categorized current economic conditions as excellent or good. Nearly two-thirds (64%) described conditions as “poor,” while 31% rated the state of the economy as “only fair.”

While the majority have negative perceptions of the economy, certain groups are more pessimistic than others. You might assume that the folks doing better financially—those with household incomes of $75K and up, categorized throughout the survey as “affluent”—would have a more positive view of the economy, and what the future holds. Truth be told, there’s no group that’s more pessimistic about our economic conditions and prospects.

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Just over half (51%) of the general population believes that we’re still in a recession, and says that either it’s unclear when the economy will improve or that it won’t improve until 2012. A higher rate of affluent Americans (56%) agrees with the statements above. While a smidge over half (51%) of the general population is pessimistic about the economy over the next 12 months, 60% of Americans with household incomes of $75K and up fall into the glass-half-empty camp. Only 29% of affluent Americans, and 31% of people overall, categorize themselves as optimistic about the economy.

Interestingly enough, the two groups who are the most optimistic about the economy in the next 12 months are the groups who many people say have suffered the most over the past few years: young people ages 18 to 34 (41% optimistic) and African-Americans (61%). Perhaps, since things have been so bad for these groups—median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of blacks, and huge numbers of financially strapped young adults have been forced to move back in with their parents—that they feel things can’t possibly get worse.

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As for what might help the economy recoup from its years-in-the-making malaise, relatively few Americans have faith in the U.S. government to provide a cure. Overall, 61% of the population (and 71% of wealthier folks) say they’re downright pessimistic about the likelihood of government officials spurring on future economic growth. More people, in fact, say that the best way our elected officials can help the economy is to decrease (51%), rather than increase (38%), government spending.

If there’s ever a topic that gets to the heart of how optimistic or pessimistic the population is, however, it’s the concept of the American Dream. In 2008, two-thirds (64%, precisely) believed that, compared to 10 years prior, it was harder to achieve the American Dream. In 2011, it seems even more difficult for the dream to become reality, with four out of five people (80%) surveyed saying that it’s now harder to achieve than it was a decade ago.

The number of people who believe their kids will get to live the American Dream is decreasing as well. In 2008, when asked if their children would achieve the American Dream, 69% of parents said yes and 20% said no. By 2011, negativism had spread, with 65% saying yes and 29% replying “um, not gonna happen.”

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Yet again, it’s the folks currently at the lower end of the economic spectrum—young people, African Americans, and Hispanics—who tend to be far more optimistic about the future. Youngsters in the 18- to 34-year-old category are the least likely to think that achieving the American Dream has gotten harder over the last 10 years. And while only a teeny 2% of whites feel that the American Dream is now easier to reach, 12% of Hispanics and 17% of African Americans feel that way. African Americans are also the most likely group to believe their children will be better off financially than their parents: 55% say so, compared to just 26% of whites.

Source: From a TIME/Money survey of 1,000 Americans age 18 and older. Because of rounding, figures may not total 100. Margin of error is +/-4 percentage points.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.