Honors Thesis Spotlight: Examining Attitudes Toward Economic Mobility Among Young Voters

The American dream—an ideological framework wherein anyone can achieve their goals through hard work and determination—is the backbone of American society and economics. As a heterogeneous nation composed of diverse backgrounds, people need a common denominator; the American Dream serves this purpose, but how sustainable is this idea in the face of reduced mobility? Economic mobility is the ability to change your socioeconomic status, and it is becoming increasingly rare in American society. This thesis outlines three attitudes towards the American dream: individualistic (the individual is responsible for their economic failure), structural (the “system” or social problems are responsible for economic failure), and fatalistic (economic failure is random and unpredictable, and uncontrollable). Author Alexander Adams tackles how the American people and their attitudes towards the American dream and economic mobility can be manipulated—and to what extent.

The researcher distributed a survey to a sample population of 2,000 Americans. With both open and closed-ended questions, the survey collected demographic information and responses gauging their agreement with different statements. The survey starts by gathering information about the respondents, specifically their race, gender, age, level of education, and current community population. Participants were then provided with three statements about hard work, to which they rated their level of agreement on a scale of 0-10, 10 being total agreement and 0 being total disagreement. Overall, the questions revealed personal and external values regarding hard work, hinting at the idea of economic mobility.

Subsequently, the respondents read a priming text corresponding to one of the three attitudes toward the American Dream: individualistic, structural, and fatalistic. The priming text was followed by a vignette describing a preserving entrepreneur: a character customized to the respondent’s gender, community population, and preferred economic policy. Respondents were then asked a series of questions assessing the success of the vignette character. Next, the same questions from the beginning of the survey were repeated to see if the answers have changed after reading the priming text and the vignette. The survey concluded with a mock proposal about a new tax plan in the participant’s state. These questions assessed the participant’s plan preference alongside their annual household income, household wealth, and partisan affiliation.

Survey data revealed that, almost unanimously, the participants agree that it is “possible to achieve success through hard work.” However, when presented with different information or reminders of recent adverse economic events, they can be persuaded to change their answers. Despite this information, the survey participants tend to not see their beliefs about work ethic through to their policy preferences; they tend to choose a policy in terms of convenience for themselves or the main character in the vignette. Therefore, the survey shows that the participants can see themselves and put forth their own biases when deciding policy. Ultimately, the author concludes that the American dream is alive and well, but introducing a bleak dose of reality and information about the economy may terminate the dream in years to come.

Alexander James Adams (pictured below) is a graduate from the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. This post is a summary of Alexander’s honors thesis, written by COSSPP Blog Intern Camila Levy. You can learn more about Alexander here. You can learn more about this project here.

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