As the nation struggles to recover from the worst recession in recent history, consumers are sharply divided. Despite a strong undercurrent of hope that success is still possible for hard-working Americans, half say they are not living the American Dream, and many of those fear they will never be able to achieve it.

These findings come from a survey recently conducted among 1,008 Americans by the polling firm StrategyOne, a Daniel J. Edelman company.

Just over half of Americans (52%) believe they are living the American Dream today. But among those in households earning between $40,000 and $50,000 –generally considered to be a typical middle income - that belief drops to just 41%. Even among the best educated -- college graduates -- 42% don’t feel they are living the Dream. About 1 in 3 (29%) of those in households earning $75,000 or more a year -- the highest income category in the survey -- report they are not living the American Dream.

Of the 48% of the country who say they aren’t living the American Dream now, 56% don’t think they ever will.

In spite of widespread doubts about whether individuals have achieved or will achieve the American Dream, 74% believe that the ideal of reaching the American Dream and being able to “make it” in America is largely true and possible, as opposed to being just a myth. Sixty-eight percent of those in households earning less than $25,000 a year also share this belief.

“Even though many consumers are worried about their own prospects for success, they have not shaken the belief that the American Dream remains a very strong possibility,” said Bradley Honan, senior vice president of StrategyOne.

There is amazing consistency across racial groups on this point. Seventy-eight percent of Blacks believe the possibility of reaching the American Dream is achievable, as do 76% of Hispanics/Latinos, and 73% of Whites.

That optimistic outlook was also shared by 81% of consumers who believe that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can achieve a middle-class life in America. Seventy-four percent agreed that achieving success in America was more about working hard, as opposed to good luck. This belief was held across the economic divide: 71% of those earning under $25,000 a year agreed, as did 69% of those earning between $25,000 and $40,000. This feeling was most pronounced among the highest earners: 78% of those who made over $75,000 a year felt hard work was the key to success.

Looking ahead

However, consumers also expressed concern about whether the country may face tougher times in the future. When asked how high schoolers’ lives would compare to their own, 31% of consumers thought the teens would have a worse life than they have had, and just 26% thought the young people would have better lives than they had had. Forty-three percent said the lives of those in high school would turn out about the same as their own.

Fears of more wars and violence in the future also shape consumers’ expectations for the future. Forty-four percent said that people in high school today would have a world filled with more wars and violence than they had seen in their lives, and only 9% thought the world would be more peaceful than they had experienced so far in their own lives. Forty-seven percent thought the number of wars and violence would remain the same.

Consumers were split over whether Americans in the future would be healthier than they are today. Thirty-six percent of consumers thought Americans would be healthier than they are today; 31% thought they would be about as healthy as they are now; and 33% thought Americans would be less healthy.

Consumers also had significant doubts about America’s future prospects as a nation. Sixty-eight percent agreed that while they hated to admit it, America’s power is fading in the world.

Nearly half (49%) thought that countries like China and India are so far ahead of America that the United States won’t be able to catch up. However, only 28% believed that America can no longer accomplish great things.

“Although they have strong concerns about fierce international competition and fading American power, consumers are reluctant to embrace a defeatist attitude that some pundits have speculated about,” Honan said.