Is the American Dream possible? It is if you earn at least $500,000 a year

Author: AIMEE PICCHI, CBS MoneyWatch
Money. (Credit: CBS News)
Money. (Credit: CBS News)

To achieve the American Dream, it helps to be filthy rich. That’s the upshot of a new survey that found nearly three-quarters of the top 1% of income earners in the U.S. think they’ve reached that classic, if somewhat hazy, benchmark of economic success and independence. By contrast, only 37% of those in the middle class believe they’re living the dream.

The top 1% — who earn at least $500,000 annually — are living “dramatically different life experiences” than middle- and low-income Americans, according to a poll from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio.

The gulf between the country’s highest earners and everyone else is the widest it’s been in at least 50 years, according to U.S. Census Data. Income growth among higher-earning families has far outpaced that of lower-income households for decades, creating a tale of two classes: The top 1% and the bottom 99%, with the bottom often struggling to pay for basics like health care and food.

“Sizable shares of middle- and lower-income adults say they have recently experience serious problems paying prescription drug costs, they did not fill a prescription because of costs, or they cut back on dosage,” the study noted.

Additionally, about 3 of 10 lower-income Americans and 1 in 10 middle-income respondents said they have struggled to buy food in recent years. (Lower-income is defined as earning less than $35,000 per year, while middle income respondents earn between $35,000 to $99,999 annually.) Lower- and middle-income respondents were also more likely to say they struggled to pay for housing than wealthier Americans.

A $1,000 emergency? Good luck with that

The research also sheds light on the financial precariousness felt by millions of U.S. families. About 67% of low-income Americans said they would have trouble affording an emergency expense of $1,000. About a third of middle-income Americans said they would struggle to pay off the bill, while about 12% of those in the higher-income bracket said they would encounter problems (Higher-income households are those earning between $100,000 to $499,999.)

It may not be surprising that wealthy Americans express greater life satisfaction than those lower down the income ladder. Nine of 10 people in the top 1% said they are satisfied with their lives — that share drops to about 4 in 10 for low-income respondents.

Dream on

Across all income groups, about half said it’s harder for the average person to earn a middle-class income today than when they were kids. Even so, respondents across all income groups agreed that the way to get ahead is through hard work, which each group ranked higher than other advantages such as a college degree or “knowing the right people.”

Most Americans say there’s too much income inequality today, according to a poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. But it’s unclear whether there’s the political will to address it, with fewer than half believing it should be a top priority of the federal government. Instead, issues such as climate change and affordable health care are ranked as more pressing problems, Pew found.

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