There is a quote, difficult to source, but attributed to John Steinbeck, that states: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." Pithy social criticism, but how accurate is the observation? In September, the Media and Public Opinion (MPO) Research Group asked Americans ‘Are you part of the top 1% in terms of income or wealth?’ and found that Steinbeck was not far off base, at least in terms of attitude.
Almost one third of respondents (31.6%) say that they are not currently in the 1%, but expect to be. This is reflective of the classic American Dream, but less so of the American Reality: upward social mobility in the US is less probable than in other developed countries. Even more mathematically unlikely are the 10.4% of respondents who claim to currently be in the top 1% of Americans in terms of wealth or income. That’s a full 42% of the country identifying as part of (or deserving to be part of) the 1%.
Aside from the ‘embarrassed millionaires’, there are 45.7% of Americans who expect to be part of the middle class for the long term. The concept of a middle class has no universal definition, so it’s difficult to say whether the self-identification as middle class is realistic or not.
What we do know is that 15% of the country is currently living under the poverty line, only about 50% more than the portion of respondents who say they expect to be there. Optimism regarding the climb out of poverty is extremely modest compared to the expectation of massive wealth expressed by the 42%.
Data comes from s survey of 507 adults over the month of September 2013. The margin of error is 4.18%.