Majority Say They're Living The American Dream Despite Weak Economy : Poll

The economy might be failing, pushing millions of Americans down the earnings ladder, but many people nevertheless say they're living the American dream.

A recent poll from the Allstate Corporation and National Journal shows that 60 percent of people say they're participating in the American dream -- defined as "the opportunity to go as far as your talents and hard work will take you and to live better than your parents."

The findings are striking in part because they arrive at a moment when opportunities appear few and far between for many Americans -- when unemployment is forcing middle-class families to scrimp and save, when almost half the people in the country are either poor or low-income, when many feel like their only recourse is to protest in the streets, and when hundreds of thousands of people are giving up on looking for jobs that aren't there.

Even in the Allstate/National Journal poll itself, signs of the grim economic climate are evident.

Fifty-eight percent of people described their financial condition as "only fair" or "poor," compared with 41 percent who said they were in "excellent" or "good shape." Fifty-one percent said they can get by every month but have difficulty saving or putting money aside, while another 20 percent said they have trouble making ends meet. Only 26 percent said they can live comfortably and save for retirement or other needs.

The idea that hard work pays off in a better life for you and your children is one that almost every American hears from a young age, but statistics show that it often doesn't hold true. One long-term study recently suggested that more than a quarter of Americans who were teenagers in middle-class families in the 1970s have since fallen down the economic ladder to become low-income or poor.

This relatively high rate of downward mobility from one generation to the next might be due to the decline of blue-collar industries in the U.S., or it might have to do with a 30-year trend of wage stagnation that has left middle-and working-class incomes almost unchanged while the very richest members of society earn more than ever.

In any case, while optimism seemingly remains strong, a growing number of Americans appear to be getting more skeptical about the notion that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. In a Pew Research poll published this week, 40 percent of respondents -- the highest rate since Pew started asking the question in 1994 -- said they disagreed with that idea.