Much has been written recently about California’s widening income gap. While the pandemic has highlighted this trend, it has been a cause for concern for decades. Today, many Californians do not believe in the American Dream. Our November PPIC Statewide Survey on Californians and Their Economic Well-Being found that a majority of Californians say that the American Dream never held true or that it no longer holds true.
Fewer than four in ten Californians say the American Dream—the notion that if you work hard you will get ahead—still holds true. Across parties, Republicans are more likely than Democrats and independents to still believe in the American Dream, and the belief that the Dream holds true increases slightly with rising income. More than four in ten Latinos say the American Dream holds true, compared to only about one in three African Americans, Asian Americans, and whites. Notably, African Americans are most likely across demographic groups to say that the American Dream never held true. And immigrants in California are 13 points more likely than US-born Californians to say the American Dream still holds true (46% to 33%).
Whether or not they believe in the American Dream, Californians tend to think it is especially elusive in the Golden State. Nearly six in ten say that the American Dream is harder to achieve in California than elsewhere in the US. Three in ten say it is equally difficult compared to other states, while just 13% say it is easier to achieve in California.
To some extent, there is a wide partisan divide on this question: strong majorities of Republicans and independents say the American Dream is harder to achieve in the Golden State, compared to fewer than half of Democrats. However, it is noteworthy that fewer than one in five across parties, regions, and demographic groups say the American Dream is easier to achieve in California than elsewhere in the US.
About half or more across demographic groups say the American Dream is harder to achieve in California. This perception is most prevalent in Orange/San Diego (65%), followed by the Inland Empire (62%), the San Francisco Bay Area (56%), the Central Valley (54%), and Los Angeles (51%). Californians making more than $80,000 per year are more likely than those at lower income levels to say that it is harder to achieve in California. Notably, US-born Californians (61%) are much more likely than immigrants (46%) to hold this view.
These findings highlight a belief—shared to varying degrees across political, regional, and demographic groups—that it is difficult to get ahead in the Golden State. While the pandemic has brought renewed attention to these and other economic challenges, California has long been a complex state with extremes of wealth and poverty. Historian Kevin Starr summarizes the dynamic well: “There has always been something slightly bipolar about California. It was either utopia or dystopia, a dream or a nightmare, a hope or a broken promise—and too infrequently anything in between.”
Stay tuned to the PPIC Statewide Survey as we continue to track Californians’ views on economic inequality and opportunity.