Most American families say they're falling short of the American Dream and need support

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More from This Survey
Foreword: One Generation Away
Home Building Survey Part I: State of the American Family
Home Building Survey Part II: Supporting Families
Why Bother With Family?
Our Conjugal Class Divide

Key Findings

  • American families face extraordinary pressures. Among parenting-age adults (aged 18–50), only those who are married and have the highest levels of education and income are likely to report that they have achieved the American Dream.
    • Overall, 25% of Americans report that they or their families are “living the American Dream,” as compared to 55% who say they are “getting by, but do not have the life [they] want” and 20% who say they are “struggling and worried for the future.”
    • 63% of married, upper-class Americans say they are living the American Dream, while working- and lower-class Americans are more likely to say they are struggling and worried for the future.
  • Patterns of family formation and work arrangement vary dramatically by class.
    • Lower- and working-class Americans aged 35–50 are less likely than middle- and upper-class Americans to be married but more likely to have children.
    • One-quarter of two-adult households with young children have two adults working full-time; people with less than a bachelor’s degree are three times more likely to have an adult in the household not working, while only people with post-graduate degrees are more likely to have two full-time workers.
  • Americans of all classes are failing to have as many children as they say they want.
    • Among Americans in every class who do not report that their families are still growing, 45 to 50% say they have fewer children than they would ideally want, as compared to 0 to 10% who say they have had more children than ideal.
    • Lower-, working-, and middle-class households are at least twice as likely to cite affordability rather than lifestyle or career as the reason they have had fewer children than they want, while upper-class households are more likely to cite lifestyle or career.
  • Across all classes and regardless of parental status, 60 to 75% of Americans say that the government should do more to support families.
    • In all cases, the primary rationales are that “families are falling behind and need help” or “more assistance to families would improve the lives of children.”
    • The rationales that “being a parent is hard work and should be rewarded” or “with more support couples could have more children” are less than one-fifth as popular.

Family Structure and Class

Higher levels of education correlate with higher rates of marriage, but rates for holders of two- and even four-year degrees differ little from high-school graduates. Only at the post-graduate level does a significant gap emerge.

A definition of “class” that includes both education and income level offers a better lens for viewing differences in family structure. For instance, marriage rates differ significantly and by fairly steady increments across classes, and also display different trends by age. While lower- and working-class adults aged 18–24 are more likely to be married than their middle- and upper-class peers, the latter have caught up in the 25–34 age cohort and leave them behind above the age of 35.

A pattern similar in one way, but notably different in another, appears with respect to having children. Lower- and working-class adults aged 18–24 are dramatically more likely to have children, but while middle- and upper-class adults in older cohorts close the gap they never catch up. Thus, while middle- and upper-class adults aged 35–50 are more likely to be married, they are less likely to have children.

Analyzing work and childcare arrangements by class is difficult because the choice to have household members in or out of the workforce influences household income level. A return to the education lens exposes the degree to which the choices of college-educated, and especially the most educated households differ from those of other Americans. Among two-parent households with a child under the age of five, a clear majority of the non-college educated have a parent not working; fewer than one-in-five have two full-time workers. For holders of post-graduate degrees, most households have two adults working full time.

The American Dream

A low share of American households is achieving the American Dream. The situation does not appear to be one where younger Americans have not yet achieved it but make substantial progress as they establish themselves. Those aged 35–50 are not much more likely than those aged 18–24 to say they are living the American Dream, and they are equally likely to say they are struggling to get by and worried for their future.

One possible explanation for this apparent shortcoming could be that “living the American Dream” is an elusive or unreasonable standard, and few ever feel they achieve it. But this is not the case. For instance, for people with higher levels of education, the likelihood of living the American Dream is higher. Notably, though, that effect is not pronounced until one achieves a bachelor’s degree. Responses from Americans with some college or even a two-year degree differ little from those with a high-school degree or less. Americans who start but do not finish college are least likely of all to be living the American Dream.

As with marriage, combining education and income into a measure of class provides the clearest picture. Most upper-class Americans do report they are living the American Dream. Marriage is also an especially strong independent predictor within each class. Married people in the middle class are as likely to say they are living the American Dream as unmarried people in the upper class. Married people in the lower and working classes are at least as likely to say they are living the American Dream as unmarried people in the middle class.

Missing Children

Alongside failure to achieve the American Dream, many families face another major disappointment: having fewer children than they say they want. Nearly half of parenting-age Americans say they would ideally have more children than they do, and being married does little to improve the picture. (Note, these data exclude respondents who report that “my family is still growing.”)

Unlike most other pictures of American life, when it comes to achieving desired family size, the challenge also looks very similar across classes.

What is different across classes is the reason for failing to achieve desired fertility. While for most Americans the leading reason for not having more children is “I don’t think I could afford to,” among the upper class the leading issue is that “my preferred lifestyle or career would be difficult.”

Government’s Role

In an era when Americans seem not to agree on much, the level of enthusiasm for government efforts to support families is strikingly high. Americans across classes, and regardless of whether they have children or not, agree by more than two-to-one with the statement that “the federal government should provide more support to families with children.” When asked why they agree, all heavily emphasize that families are falling behind and that assistance would improve the lives of children. Very few are especially persuaded by the “parenting wage” argument that parenting is hard work and should be rewarded, or the “natalist” argument that with more support couples could have more children. Among those who disagree, the leading reason is that providing such support is not the federal government’s role.

Part II of this report will delve further into attitudes about what kind of support people believe government should provide.


The American Compass Home Building Survey was conducted by YouGov between January 21 and January 28, 2021, with a representative sample of 2,000 adults aged 18–50 living in the United States, including 1,174 respondents who reported being a parent or guardian. YouGov interviewed 2,214 respondents who were then matched down to a sample of 2,000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race, and education. The frame was constructed by stratified sampling from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) 1-year sample subset on those aged 18–50, with selection within strata by weighted sampling with replacements (using the person weights on the public use file).

Respondents were instructed: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary financial, logistical, and emotional constraints on families and forced many to rearrange their lives. In answering these questions, please think how your life would be with no pandemic—for instance, how it was before the pandemic struck or how you expect it to be once the pandemic has ended.

“Class” is defined by education and income:

  • “Lower” (N=553): less than a 4-yr degree and household income below $30K
  • “Working” (N=385): less than a 4-yr degree and household income $30K–$70K
  • “Middle” (N=652): 4-yr degree or more and household income $30K–$70K; or household income $70K–$150K
  • “Upper” (N=110): household income above $150K

Respondents who did not report household income and those with a 4-yr degree or more but household income below $30K are excluded from analyses using the “Class” variable.

More from This Survey
Foreword: One Generation Away

Preserving our national inheritance requires public policy to get the family right.

Home Building Survey Part I: State of the American Family

Across all classes and regardless of parental status, 60 to 75% of Americans say that the government should do more to support families.

Home Building Survey Part II: Supporting Families

American attitudes about family structure vary widely, but most families see a full-time earner and a stay-at-home parent as the ideal arrangement for raising young children.