A new survey finds that 42 percent of Americans say capitalism isn't working well, and they complain about the encouragement of greed, the lack of equal opportunity and the creation of poverty and lasting inequality.
The survey illustrates the country's deep polarization. In a positive finding for Democrats who favor a strong government role in society, most Americans say government should do more to reduce inequality. But Republicans who want to limit government will find encouragement in that most Americans don't have confidence in government's ability to function effectively.
Fifty-four percent of Americans think capitalism is working well, the survey says, but the fact that the majority is so slim is seen as a warning sign of rising pessimism. "The idea that America is an opportunity society is a longstanding bedrock belief," said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, which helped conduct the study. "But striking numbers of Americans, especially younger Americans, have become pessimistic about their prospects for economic mobility and doubt that hard work leads to success."
Fifty-eight percent of Americans between the ages of 18 to 33 years old believe they are worse off than their parents' generation.
Only in the oldest generation of Americans – those 66 to 88 – do most, 59 percent, believe they are better off than their parents' generation.
Fifty-four percent agree that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people, while 45 percent disagree.
Not surprisingly, affluent Americans are more optimistic about the economic future than lower-income Americans.
There is also a disconnect among Americans on the role of government. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed say government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. And 62 percent say it is the responsibility of government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves. Fifty-six percent say the government should guarantee health insurance for all citizens even it if would require tax increases.
But two-thirds say the federal government is broken, and they have little confidence in Washington's ability to solve problems.
Only 7 percent of Americans say the federal government is "generally working," the survey finds, and an additional 24 percent say the government is only "working with some major problems." But 26 percent say the federal government is "completely broken" and 40 percent say the government is only working "in some areas."
"In principle, Americans would like government to correct some imperfections of capitalism and free markets, but their doubts about government's ability to act effectively pull them in the other direction," said political scientist Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution.
Among those who say American capitalism is not working, 34 percent say this is because the system encourages greed; 28 percent say it's because capitalism doesn't provide equal opportunities for everyone; 14 percent say it creates poverty, and 11 percent say it creates lasting inequalities.
The survey was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Brookings Institution.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.