"Work hard, play by the rules and tomorrow will be better than today. That implicit promise has been at the core of the American Experience through good times and bad.
But now, whipsawed by plummeting home values, $4-a-gallon gas, rising food prices and gyrating financial markets, Americans increasingly fear that the national bargain has unraveled, that their once-steady march toward affluence has derailed. In a new USA TODAY poll, 54% of those surveyed say their standard of living is no better today than five years ago.
"Fewer Americans now than at any time in the last half-century believe they're moving forward in life," concluded a recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center.
The USA TODAY respondents were more upbeat about the prospects for improvement in the next five years, but only 45% expect their children to live better than they do.
"I don't think it is going to be as easy for them. They're going to have to pay back a tremendous debt load. … I just don't see the opportunities being there," says Matt Gwynne, 63, a retired executive in Angier, N.C
"My American dream almost came true
But the things they promised me never came through
I believe in the American dream
But things are never quite what they seem"