December 15, 2010

For Public, Tough Year Ends on a Down Note

Section 1: Perceptions of Progress on Major Issues

Americans are tough graders when assessing the country’s progress on major issues. Since 1989, when this question was first asked, there has not been an occasion when a majority of the public said the country was making progress on any issue.

Nevertheless, beliefs about whether the nation is making progress, staying about the same, or losing ground on issues have fluctuated over the years.

While large majorities say the nation is losing ground on the budget deficit (67%) and the availability of good jobs (64%), even higher percentages expressed these negative views two years ago (79% losing ground on budget deficit, 72% on availability of good-paying jobs). Opinion on other economic issues has shown less change since 2008.

The public’s outlook on both issues has shown dramatic changes since the mid- to late-1990s. In November 1997, after Bill Clinton and the GOP Congress agreed on legislation to balance the budget within five years, as many said the country was making progress (32%) as losing ground (29%) on the deficit. Just three years earlier, 60% said the nation was losing ground on the deficit.
By the middle of the current decade, a majority (65%) once again said the nation was losing ground on the deficit. That figure rose to 79% in 2008 before to declining to 67% in the current survey.

As the economy boomed in the late 1990s, the public had a relatively positive view of job availability; in both 1997 and 2001, roughly as many said the nation was making progress as losing ground on the availability of good jobs. But by 2008, 72% said the country was losing ground in this area while just 11% said it was making progress.

Changing Partisan Reactions

Just as opinions among Republicans and Democrats about whether the nation is losing ground on health care have reversed in recent years, so too have attitudes about whether the country is losing ground on the budget deficit and the availability of good-paying jobs.

In February 2007, 75% of Democrats said the nation was losing ground on the deficit, compared with 47% of Republicans. In December 2008, during the financial crisis and the final month of the Bush administration, opinions among partisans converged – 79% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans said the nation was losing ground on the budget deficit. In the current survey, 86% of Republicans see the nation falling behind on the deficit compared with 51% of Democrats.

Similarly, in 2007 far more Democrats (56%) than Republicans (29%) said the nation was losing ground on the availability of good-paying jobs. Today, more Republicans (71%) than Democrats (53%) say the United States is falling behind in this area.

Among independents, 70% say the nation is losing ground on the deficit, down from 83% in 2008. The proportion of independents saying the nation is losing ground on job availability (67%) is about the same as two years ago (70%) but much higher than in 2007 (52%).

The partisan shifts in the belief that the nation is losing ground are evident
on other issues as well. Republicans are now far more likely than Democrats to say the nation is losing ground on the financial condition of Social Security and Medicare. In 2005, during the Bush administration, more Democrats than Republicans said the nation was losing ground in these areas.

Republicans See Ground Being Lost on Most Issues

Across 12 issues included in this year’s survey, there is only one on which substantially more Democrats than Republicans say the nation is losing ground – the gap between the rich and poor; 62% of Democrats say the country is losing ground on the rich-poor gap compared with 50% of Republicans. Still, the partisan difference over this issue was even larger in 2007 when 72% of Democrats and 44% of Republicans said the nation was losing ground.

Independents’ views about progress on major issues tend to fall between those of Republicans and Democrats. But independents come closer to Republicans on some issues and Democrats on others.

Six-in-ten (60%) independents say the nation is losing ground on its ability to compete economically with other nations, placing them much closer to Republicans (72%) than Democrats (39%). And half of independents (50%) say the nation is losing ground on illegal immigration; that compares with 58% of Republicans and just 26% of Democrats. Independents also are closer to Republicans than Democrats in evaluations of progress on job availability and terrorism.

By contrast, independents are just as likely as Democrats to say the nation is losing ground on the gap between rich and poor (62% in each group); fewer Republicans (50%) express this view. And fewer than half of independents (46%) say the country is losing ground on the way the health care system works, placing them closer to Democrats (33%) than Republicans (67%).

Rich and Poor Alike See Income Inequality

As might be expected, people with lower family incomes are more likely than those with higher incomes to say that the nation is losing ground on the cost of living. Seven-in-ten (70%) with incomes of $30,000 or less say the nation is losing ground on the cost of living compared with 54% of those with annual incomes of $75,000 or more.

Yet there are no differences in how higher and lower-income groups view the rich-poor gap. More than half (55%) of those with family incomes of $30,000 or less say the nation is losing ground on the rich-poor gap; an identical percentage (55%) of those with incomes of $75,000 or more say the same. And those in the highest income category ($100,000 or more) express similar opinions about the rich poor gap – 53% say the nation is losing ground, 38% say things are staying about the same and 7% say the nation is making progress.