60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll: The American dream

Most Americans choose to believe that with study and hard work the American dream is alive and well. What do you think?

Welcome to the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll for April 2015. This month's poll questions refer to the American dream and what the term means to Americans today. It was said to have first appeared in 1931 in a book called "Epic of America" by James Truslow Adams. It stated, "...the American Dream, of a land in which life should be better, richer and fuller with opportunity for each according to their ability or achievement."

In some ways it has defined the American ethos, but each new generation must redefine it for themselves. Some think that the American dream peaked after World War II with the GI Bill, which enabled millions of Americans to buy homes and attend college creating a vast new middle class that spurred the economy to new heights. Since then the country's priorities seem to have slowly shifted in other directions.

Many blame a Congress that sometimes seems to favor corporations or the well-connected over ordinary Americans. Or depending on your party, the president. Americans feel the divide and some have taken to the streets to protest what they perceive as a growing inequality in income and opportunity. Despite the recent difficulties caused by the financial meltdown of 2008, we are a nation of optimists and most Americans choose to believe that with study and hard work the American dream is alive and well. How would you describe the American dream today? We look forward to your answers, and now the results.

Define the dream

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Forty-four percent of Americans want to pay it forward and describe the American Dream as giving their kids a better life. Twenty-two percent describe it as having a successful career followed by, doing better than their parents 13 percent, owning a home 10 percent, becoming wealthy overnight 5 percent and becoming famous 2 percent. Short of becoming rich or famous overnight, today's Americans are describing the same dreams that their parents and grandparents probably had.

Generation Gap

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Two out of three Americans think they have a better life than their parents did. One out of five think their parents had it better and one out of 10 think they have it about the same. Having a better life means more than just having more money and material comforts. If two-thirds of Americans feel they are having a better life than their parents that should make a lot of people happy, especially the parents.

How to achieve it

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Nearly half (47 percent) of all Americans think a college education is most important in achieving the American dream. Next in order were, being a U.S. citizen 22 percent, being born wealthy 9 percent, speaking English 7 percent, having health insurance 6 percent and being white 3 percent. Thomas Jefferson believed that having an "educated citizenry" was the best hope for our young nation, and over 200 years later a lot of people still agree.

Dream Personified

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One out of four Americans chose Steve Jobs from the list as the embodiment of the American dream. One out of five picked Oprah followed by Sam Walton 18 percent, Rosa Parks 15 percent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg 7 percent, Michael Jordan 5 percent and Kim Kardashian 1 percent. With the exception of Kim, what do they all have in common? They all came from humble beginnings and through extraordinary ability and effort achieved great things. Now that sure sounds like the American dream.

Dream Date

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Four out of 10 Americans think the American dream is closest to reaching its peak right now. Three out of 10 chose 1965 and "the Great Society," 14 percent said 1945 and the postwar boom, 6 percent went back to 1776 when we declared independence, 3 percent went with 1865 when the Civil War ended, and 1 percent went back to a pre-Columbian 1491. With so many hopeful times to choose from, the fact that Americans chose the present day as the winner proves that we are indeed a nation of optimists.

Hot Topic

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On balance 35 percent of Americans feel that immigrants coming to the U.S. today are mostly hurting the country, 32 percent say they are mostly helping the country and 29 percent think they are having no effect either way. More Republicans (53 percent) say they are hurting and more Democrats (45 percent) say they are helping. It's a big topic and the 2016 presidential election may hinge on how the candidates approach the issue of immigration in America.

Ask Yourself

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Three out of four Americans think their first American ancestors would be proud of what they have achieved, but one out of five do not think so. It's a broad spectrum of forebears ranging from the 1600s when people seeking religious freedom built a "city on a hill" to modern day where immigrants come to America including many who are willing to start at the bottom in order to provide freedom and opportunity for their children. They all have something in common which defines the American dream: hope for a better future.

In Another Time

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If they had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, 31 percent of Americans think they would have handled the economic insecurity better than most and only 7 percent think they would have fared worse. A solid majority of 60 percent think they would have handled it about the same as most people. A lot of Americans got a taste of economic insecurity after the financial meltdown of 2008 and endured it. Many still struggle. Most Americans have faced adversity of one kind or another and our resiliency and willingness to help others in their time of need represent and reflect some of the best aspects of our national character.

Country of Choice

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Now here's something most Americans can agree on, 84 percent think that living in the United States gives them the best chance at a successful life and only 11 percent think that they may have a better chance if they lived in another country. It may not be perfect but a large majority of Americans think it sure beats the alternative.

Merger

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If Canada and the U.S. merged into one country, two out of three Americans would prefer that Canada become part of the U.S. and come under our laws and 22 percent (probably hockey fans) would prefer for the U.S. to become part of Canada and come under Canadian laws.

Changing History

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From the list of rights provided, 37 percent of Americans would remove the right to bear arms, followed by trial by jury 14 percent, freedom of speech 10 percent, and freedom of religion 9 percent. Twenty-eight percent of Americans would not play along and would not remove any of them. We have become pretty attached to the Bill of Rights throughout our history because it helps to provide the foundation of our nation, and why so many people still want to come to America to pursue the American dream.


This poll was conducted by telephone from February 6-10, 2015 among 1,002 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Media, PA. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus 3 percentage points. The error for other subgroups may be higher. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Poll. Read more about this poll