May 21, 2009

Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era

Section 7: Optimism, Personal Finances and Inequality

While the country is facing deep economic problems, Americans remain convinced of the value of hard work, and continue to believe that individuals control their fates. And while people express greater personal financial dissatisfaction than in more than two decades of values surveys, there has been no increase in the proportion saying they are unable to “make ends meet.”

Moreover, there has been a sharp increase in public confidence in the American people’s ability to solve problems. Currently, 70% agree that “as Americans we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want.” Two years ago, 58% said they shared this belief.

Fewer Americans also say the country is economically divided into “haves and have-nots.” Currently, 35% see the country as divided into two groups – haves and have-nots – down from 44% last fall. And when asked which category they themselves fall into, more people continue to classify themselves as “haves” rather than “have-nots” (by 48% to 36%).

On both measures – views of the ability of Americans to solve problems and perceptions of economic equality – African Americans and Democrats, in particular, express much more positive views than they have in recent years. For instance, 62% of non-Hispanic blacks believe that Americans can solve problems, up 21 points since 2007. Whites also express more confidence, but the change has been far more modest (60% of non-Hispanic whites agreed in 2007, 70% today).

As might be expected, however, attitudes about personal finances have turned more negative. A narrow majority of Americans (53%) agree that they are “pretty well satisfied with the way things are going” for them financially, the lowest percentage expressing this opinion dating back to 1987. Two years ago, 61% said they were satisfied financially. A decade ago, amid the economic boom, 68% agreed that they were pretty satisfied financially.

The Better Off Are Feeling Worse Off

The decline in assessments of personal finances has been especially sharp among those at the top of the income ladder. They remain more positive than those from households making less money, but the well off are far less positive than they used to be. Today, 65% of those in the highest income category – those with family incomes of $75,000 or more – say they are pretty well satisfied financially, down from 85% two years ago. Just 37% of those in the lowest income category ($20,000 or less) are currently satisfied with their financial situation, unchanged from 2007.

The proportion of Republicans expressing satisfaction with their financial situation, which reached an all-time high of 81% in 2007, has fallen by 20 points in the current survey. There has been far less change in the views of independents and Democrats: Currently, 52% of independents and 49% of Democrats say they are pretty satisfied with their personal finances.

Only about a third of African Americans (34%) say they are pretty well satisfied financially, which is the lowest percentage in a values survey but largely unchanged since 2007. A majority of whites (57%) express satisfaction with their financial situations, compared with 65% two years ago. Among Hispanics, slightly more than half are satisfied (52%), compared with 56% in 2007.

Despite the decline in satisfaction with personal finances, the proportion saying they are having difficulty making ends meet has not increased – 42% say that currently, which is largely unchanged from 2007 (44%). Notably, far fewer agree that they “often don’t have enough money to make ends meet” today than did so in the early 1990s (54% in 1993, 52% in 1992).

People in the lowest income category (less than $20,000) are more than four times more likely than those in the highest income group ($75,000 or more) to say they often have trouble making ends meet (73% vs. 17%). Opinions about this issue across income groups have held fairly steady in recent years.

Fewer See Divide Between “Haves” and “Have-Nots”

A large majority of Americans (71%) agree with the axiom that the “rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.” While there are somewhat predictable differences across income categories, this view is widely shared: 80% of those with family incomes of $30,000 or less agree with this statement, but so do 62% of those with incomes of $100,000 or more. Opinions about a growing disparity between rich and poor have changed little over the past decade.

Yet there has been a decline in the share of Americans who believe American society is divided between “haves” and “have-nots.” Slightly more than a third (35%) say the society is divided between haves and have-nots, the lowest level in four years (38% in March 2005). Last October, 44% said the nation was divided along economic lines; in July 2007, a recent high of 48% expressed this view.

Fewer African Americans believe the country is divided between haves and have-nots than did so last October (75% then, 60% today). Still, about twice as many blacks as whites (29%) believe the country is split between haves and have-nots.

There also have been declines since late 2008 in the percentages of Democrats (11 points) and independents (11 points) who believe the country is economically divided; by contrast, there has been little change among Republicans (three points).

Generally, more people continue to see themselves as haves (48%) rather than have-nots (36%) – these perceptions have changed little in recent years. As might be expected, family income is strongly associated with whether people describe themselves as a have or have-not: 72% of those with family incomes of $75,000 or more describe themselves as haves, compared with just 30% of those with incomes of $30,000 or less.

Today, 43% of African Americans see themselves as haves; compared with 35% last October. A narrow majority of whites (54%) continue to view themselves as haves, which is largely unchanged from 2008 (50%).

Far more people believe the Obama administration does more to help the have-nots than said that about George W. Bush’s administration or the Reagan administration: 30% say the current administration does more to help the have-nots compared with just 4% for the Bush administration (in 2001 and 2004) and the Reagan administration. Those presidents were more widely viewed as helping the haves than Obama. Nearly half said Reagan’s administration did more to help the haves in 1988 and 47% expressed that view about the Bush administration in 2004. Fewer than one-in-ten say Obama’s administration does more to help the haves.

Personal Empowerment

Most Americans continue to reject the idea that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” Nearly two-thirds (64%) disagree with the idea and almost one-in-four (24%) disagree completely. Just half as many people (32%) agree with this statement, with 10% agreeing completely.

Similarly, 65% disagree with the statement that “hard work offers little guarantee of success,” while 33% agree. Opinions about both measures relating to success have held steady for more than a decade. From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, Americans were somewhat more inclined to agree with the idea of outside forces determining success. In 1993, for example, 41% agreed with that idea while 57% disagreed.

In values surveys since 1987, more blacks than whites have typically said that success is largely determined outside of an individual’s control. But the proportion of African Americans expressing this view has fallen since 2007. Currently, 38% agree that success is beyond one’s control, compared with 47% in 2007. Whites’ views about this issue have not changed (30% agree now, 29% in 2007).

A relatively large share of Hispanics (45%) believe that success is largely determined by forces outside of one’s control; this is little changed from 2007 (48%). About the same proportion of Hispanics (43%) say that hard work offers little guarantee of success.

In general, more people with low family incomes than those with higher incomes consistently say that success is largely outside of an individual’s control. This also is the case in opinions about the relationship between hard work and success.

Similarly, less educated people are much more likely than college graduates to say that success is outside of one’s control and that hard work offers little guarantee of success. In the current survey, 41% of those with no more than a high school education agree that success is generally beyond one’s control, compared with 16% of college graduates. The gap is about as large in opinions about hard work.

Work and Wealth

The vast majority of Americans continue to say they “admire people who get rich by working hard.” Nine-in-ten agree with this idea, virtually unchanged since the question was first asked in 1992. Almost half of Americans (49%) completely agree with the statement, down slightly from 2003, when 54% completely agreed.

Overwhelming proportions of Republicans (92%), Democrats (90%) and independents (90%) say they admire people who get rich by working hard. There are relatively modest racial, educational and income differences in these opinions.

A smaller majority (60%) agrees that “many people today think they can get ahead without working hard and making sacrifices,” while 37% disagree. These views also have remained very stable for over a decade.

Public’s Self-Confidence Up

Seven-in-ten Americans agree that, “as Americans, we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want,” up 12 points from 2007, when public confidence in the people’s abilities to solve problems fell to its lowest level since 1993.

In 2007, 56% of independents and 53% of Democrats expressed confidence in the American people – the lowest percentages expressing this view in the 22 years of values surveys. But today, increased proportions of Democrats (up 18 points) and independents (up 14 points) agree that Americans can solve problems and get what they want. There has been no change among Republicans since 2007.

Similarly, two years ago just 41% of blacks said that Americans could solve problems – among the lowest measures ever in a values survey. That has rebounded to 62% in the current survey. Whites continue to express more confidence in the people’s abilities than do African Americans, but the gap has narrowed considerably (from 19 points to eight points).

The share of women agreeing that people in this country can solve problems also declined sharply in 2007 – to 53% from 70% just five years earlier. In the current survey, two thirds of women (67%) say that Americans can solve problems and get what they want, up 14 points from 2007. More men also believe Americans can accomplish their goals than did so two years ago (74% now, 64% then).

More Republicans Doubt Unlimited Growth

Just more than half (54%) agree that “I don’t believe that there are any real limits to growth in this country today.” That is little changed from 2007 (57%), but down significantly from 2002 when 65% said there were no real limits to growth.

Fewer Republicans agree that there are no limits to growth than did so two years ago (70% in 2007, 60% today). By contrast, there has been little change in opinions among Democrats (53%) independents (54%).

Interestingly, the change in attitudes about prospects for unlimited growth has been especially notable at both ends of the ideological spectrum. Among conservative Republicans, 73% agreed there were no limits in 2007; 59% do today. Among liberal Democrats, 60% agreed there were no limits in 2007; 46% do today.

Nation of Patriots

As always, Americans see themselves as “very patriotic.” Almost nine-in-ten (88%) agree that they are very patriotic – a figure that has varied by no more than a few points since 1987. More than half (54%) completely agree that they are patriotic, which is up slightly from 2007 but in line with measures over the past two decades.

The proportion of women who completely agree with that statement fell nine points between 2003 and 2007 (from 53% to 44%), but has recovered to 52% in the current survey. Similarly, the proportion of those 65 and older who answered that way also declined in those years, but it has increased by 13 points since 2007.

Blacks have been consistently less likely than whites to completely agree that they are very patriotic, and that remains the case in the current survey; 35% of African Americans completely agree that they are very patriotic compared with 61% of whites. Overall, 93% of whites say they are very patriotic, compared with 75% each among blacks and Hispanics.

As in past values surveys, fewer young people than older Americans strongly express patriotic sentiment. Only about a third of those younger than 30 completely agree that “I am very patriotic,” compared with majorities in all older age groups.

Republicans continue to be more likely than Democrats or independents to say they completely agree they are patriotic and the gap has grown since 2007. Currently, 71% of Republicans completely agree they are very patriotic, up from 61% two years ago. By contrast, 53% of independents and 46% of Democrats completely agree they are very patriotic.