December 19, 2006

Free Trade Agreements Get a Mixed Review

51% Say U.S. Has Responsibility to

Summary of Findings

The American public continues to have a mixed opinion about free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the WTO. On balance they are seen as a good thing for the country, but Americans are divided over the impact of free trade agreements on their own personal financial situations. About as many people think they are helped by them (35%) as believe they are hurt (36%).

Many Americans worry that free trade has had a negative effect on jobs and wages. Nearly half (48%) believe that free trade agreements lead to job losses in the U.S., while just 12% say that trade agreements have created jobs. A comparable number (44%) says that free trade has led to lower wages for American workers.

By contrast, there is less agreement that free trade has promoted economic growth or led to lower prices on products sold in the United States. Indeed, about as many people say that free trade agreements have raised prices on products as say that they have led to lower prices (30% vs. 32%).

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted among 1,502 adults from Dec. 6-10, finds that there is broad agreement about one group of beneficiaries from free trade agreements: Nearly six-in-ten Americans (57%) say that free trade is good for the people of developing countries, compared with just 19% who say it does not make a difference and 9% who think that free trade agreements are bad for the publics of developing countries.

Views of free trade have long been divided along socioeconomic lines. People with low annual household incomes, and those with less education, are less likely than others to view free trade as beneficial, both for the country and themselves. There also are significant political differences: More Republicans than Democrats say that trade has been good for the United States (50% vs. 42%), and the gap is even larger in terms of the personal financial impact of trade. In addition, far more Republicans than Democrats say that free trade agreements lower the price on products sold in the United States (40% vs. 27%).

But Republicans and Democrats both see a negative impact of trade on wages and jobs. By a margin of 42%-14%, Republicans say that trade agreements lead to job losses rather than creating jobs; Democrats agree by an even wider margin (51%-10%). And Republicans by 42% to 11% say trade makes wages lower rather than higher; Democrats concur by 47%-11%.

The new survey also finds that isolationist sentiment among the public, which has risen dramatically in recent years because of the Iraq war, remains undiminished. Currently, 42% of Americans agree that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”; 53% disagree with that statement. The percentage agreeing with this statement equals the number in October 2005, and is on par with measures of isolationist sentiment in the mid-1990s, in the wake of the Cold War, and in the mid-1970s after the Vietnam War.

While many Americans take a cautious view of the U.S. role in the world, about half (51%) say they believe that the United States has a responsibility to do something about the ethnic genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. Roughly the same number (53%) favors the use of U.S. troops as part of a multinational force to end the ethnic genocide there.

By comparison, in March 1999 nearly half of Americans (47%) felt the U.S. had a responsibility to do something about the fighting between ethnic groups in the Serbian province of Kosovo. But during the Bosnian civil war in June 1995, far fewer ­ just 30% ­ believed the U.S. had a responsibility to do something about fighting between Serbs and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia.

The crisis in Darfur is not registering with most Americans. Just 13% say they have paid very close attention to this story; interest in the Iraq war (42% very closely) and news about the incoming Democratic leaders in Congress (29%) overshadows interest in Sudan.

However, those who have followed this story at least fairly closely are much more likely than those who have not to say that the U.S. has an obligation to take some action in Darfur. Fully two-thirds (66%) of those who have followed reports on Darfur very or fairly closely say the United States has a responsibility to do something about the ethnic genocide in Sudan; only about four-in-ten (43%) of those who have not closely followed the story agree.

There also are significant educational differences in opinions about this issue; 68% of college graduates ­ and just 40% of those with a high school degree or less ­ say the United States has a responsibility to do something about the ethnic genocide in Darfur. But partisanship is not a factor in these opinions ­ comparable majorities of Republicans (53%), Democrats (51%), and independents (56%) agree that the U.S. has an obligation in this regard.

Free Trade: Many Are Uncertain

Opinions about the impact of free trade agreements ­ both on the country and on individuals’ finances ­ have been generally stable over the past ten years. In December 2003, positive perceptions of the effects of free trade declined, but recovered soon after.

In general, people do not see free trade as either completely positive or completely negative ­ and sizable minorities offer no opinions at all. In the current survey, 21% did not express a view about free trade’s impact on the country; 29% said free trade agreements neither helped nor hurt their personal finances, or declined to answer.

Just 28% of those surveyed say that free trade agreements are good for both the country and their own personal financial situation; about as many (25%) take a negative view of free trade in both dimensions. But nearly four-in-ten (37%) view free trade agreements as neither positive nor negative, or have no opinion on one or both questions.

Similarly, when asked about the specific effects of free trade on wages, jobs, prices, and the economy in general, most Americans render a mixed judgment. However, many more say that free trade agreements have no positive consequences than say that such agreements have no negative effects (47% vs. 30%).

Trade’s Personal Impact

Perceptions of the personal impact of free trade vary widely across different groups in the population. Older Americans and those with lower levels of income and education are the least likely to say their financial situation has been helped by free trade agreements.

By contrast, the wealthiest and best educated are much more positive about trade’s effects on themselves and their families. For example, just 22% of those with household incomes under $20,000 annually believe trade agreements have helped them financially; 47% think trade has hurt them. At the other end of the income scale, 55% of those earning $150,000 or more say free trade has been good for them financially; just 12% say it has been bad.

Roughly four-in-ten people in the West (43%) say free trade has helped their finances. That compares with 37% in the Northeast and 33% in the South. In the Midwest, just 31% say trade has helped their financial situation and 42% say it has hurt ­ a number that rises to 51% among those making less than $40,000 annually.

Modest Optimism for ’07

Americans remain fairly gloomy about the way things are going in the United States. Just 28% are satisfied with national conditions, while 65% are dissatisfied. But most people say that, as far as they are concerned, next year will be better than this year. Nearly six-in-ten (57%) people ­ including half of those currently dissatisfied with national conditions ­ say 2007 will be better.

Optimism about the coming year is in line with end-of-year measures from December 1994 and December 1998 (59% in each year), but lower than in December 1999 amid the nation’s economic boom (66% better). Two-thirds of Republicans (67%) feel that next year will be better, compared with 54% of Democrats and the same percentage of independents. Although their party won majorities in Congress last month, Democrats are significantly less positive about the upcoming year than they were in December 1994, shortly after the party lost control of Congress; at that time, nearly two-thirds of Democrats (65%) felt that 1995 would be a better year.

Economic Ratings Stable, Job Picture Improves

Roughly four-in-ten Americans (38%) rate economic conditions in the country as excellent or good. The current measure is in line with public views of the economy in late October (33% positive) and September (37%).

The public’s economic expectations for the year ahead have improved somewhat since September. About one-in-five (22%) think the economy will be better off a year from now, while 18% say it will be worse off, and most Americans (56%) say it will be about the same as now. In September, 16% said the economy would improve.

In addition, the public has a more upbeat view of the availability of jobs in their local communities. Currently, 40% say there are plenty of jobs available locally, while 49% say jobs are difficult to find. Last January, just a third of Americans had an upbeat opinion of their local employment situation.

Perceptions of the local job situation have improved particularly in the West, among political independents, and middle-income Americans. Roughly half (49%) of those with annual household incomes of between $30,000 and $75,000 now say there are plenty of jobs available locally. In January, only about a third in those income categories said plenty of jobs were available locally (35%).

The belief by more Americans that jobs are plentiful appears to be helping President Bush’s rating on the economy. Currently, 39% approve of Bush’s job performance in this area, his highest rating since February (38%). Among those who say that jobs are available locally, Bush’s rating on the economy is 56%; by contrast, just 28% of those who say jobs are difficult to find approve of Bush’s performance on the economy.

Personal Finances

About half of Americans (48%) rate their own personal financial situation as good or excellent, which has changed little in recent years. However, there is a bit more personal financial optimism than in January 2006. Currently, 67% say they expect the financial situation of themselves and their families to improve either a lot (10%) or some (57%) over the next year; that compares with 61% who were personally optimistic almost a year ago.

Notably, while people’s evaluations of their personal financial situations remain deeply polarized along political lines, there continues to be greater partisan agreement about future financial expectations. Roughly three-quarters of Republicans (76%) say they expect their financial situation to improve at least some, compared with 65% of Democrats and 64% of independents.

Foreign Policy Attitudes: Little Change

Pew’s 2005 survey of foreign policy attitudes showed a steady rise in isolationist sentiment from earlier in the decade. In that survey, 42% said the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally,” up from 34% in 2004 and just 30% in 2002. As was the case in October 2005, there are major socioeconomic and political differences in views on this issue. (See “Opinion Leaders Turn Cautious, Public Looks Homeward,” Nov. 17, 2005)

About half of those with a high school education or less (51%) believe that the U.S. should mind its own business internationally, compared with just a quarter of college graduates. Politically, conservative and moderate Democrats are the only group in which a majority (51%) agrees with this statement. By contrast, conservative Republicans disagree by about three-to-one (73%-24%); views of the other political groups are more mixed.

There also has been little change since the fall of 2005 in opinions about whether the United States “should cooperate fully with the United Nations.” Currently, 57% agree with this statement, compared with 35% who disagree. Overall opinions of the U.N., as well as whether the U.S. should cooperate fully with that organization, remain deeply politicized. Eight-in-ten liberal Democrats, and 68% of moderate and conservative Democrats feel the U.S. should cooperate fully with the U.N. That compares with smaller majorities of independents (57%) and moderate and liberal Republicans (55%). Only about a third of conservative Republicans agree that the U.S. should cooperate fully with the U.N., while 62% disagree.

Anti-Terrorism Policies

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the public has been fairly consistent in its opinions about anti-terrorism policies. Solid majorities favor requiring citizens to carry a national identity card at all times and allowing airport personnel to do extra checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent (57% each).

By contrast, there has been much less support for the government monitoring personal communications and credit card purchases; support for these steps are even lower when people are asked specifically about the government monitoring their personal calls and credit card purchases.

In the current survey, just 22% favor allowing the government to monitor their personal phone calls and emails; this is consistent with support for this step since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Only about a quarter (26%) favor the government monitoring their credit card purchases. More Americans backed this policy in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (40%), but support fell soon afterward.

Despite the extensive support for allowing extra airline checks on people who appear to be Middle Eastern, there are major demographic and political differences concerning this practice. Democrats themselves are divided ­ a narrow majority of conservative and moderate Democrats (52%) favor permitting greater scrutiny of people who appear to be Middle Eastern, but just 37% of liberal Democrats agree.

Older Americans ­ those ages 50 and older ­ are much more supportive of allowing extra checks on passengers who appear to be Middle Eastern than are people under age 30. However, race is not a factor in these opinions. About as many African Americans as whites are in favor of allowing airport personnel to do extra checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent (57% of blacks, 59% of whites).

Katrina Update

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the public was highly critical of the federal government’s response to the tragedy. However, Americans are now even more critical of the government’s job performance in handling the crisis ­ just 20% say the government has done an excellent or good job in the aftermath of the hurricane, while fully 76% rate its job performance as only fair (36%) or poor (40%).

As expected, there are political differences in the public’s evaluation of the government’s performance after Katrina, with Democrats much less favorable than Republicans. But even among Republicans just a third give the government a positive rating, while 61% say the government has done only fair or poor in Katrina’s aftermath.

These differences also are reflected in concerns over whether the government is spending too much or too little on hurricane relief. Most Americans (55%) ­ and majorities or pluralities in every major demographic and political group ­ say their bigger concern is that the government is spending too little rather than too much on Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Even among conservative Republicans, where concerns about excessive government spending on Katrina relief are fairly pronounced, somewhat more say their greater concern is that the government will spend too little rather than too much on these efforts (by 42% to 32%).

Despite the bleak assessments of the government’s performance after Katrina, most Americans say generally there has been a lot (9%) or some (47%) progress in rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Yet these perceptions also differ along political and racial lines. Roughly seven-in-ten Republicans (71%), and 58% of whites, believe at least some progress has been made in rebuilding areas affected by the hurricane; only about half of Democrats (47%) ­ and 46% of blacks ­ agree.

Cite this publication: “Free Trade Agreements Get a Mixed Review.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (December 19, 2006) http://www.people-press.org/2006/12/19/free-trade-agreements-get-a-mixed-review/, accessed on July 22, 2014.