What the Great Recession Wrought: The State of the U.S. in 3 Years of Polls

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The economic downturn exacerbated the deep political and cultural divides in our 50-50 nation. Here's what three years of polling data says about where America stands today.

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More than three years into the deepest economic downturn since the Depression, Americans are resilient, wary, and divided.

That's a central message from the 11 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor polls conducted each quarter since April 2009. Across an array of questions, the polls show Americans to be resilient in their enduring conviction that their economic fate will turn primarily on their own efforts, rather than on large forces beyond their control; wary in their deepening skepticism that they can rely on any large institution, from banks and major corporations to Congress and the federal bureaucracy, to protect their interests; and deeply divided along partisan, ideological, and racial lines over Washington's proper role in national life.

With more than 12,000 cumulative interviews, the surveys paint a portrait of a nation struggling to maintain faith in old beliefs about opportunity, self-sufficiency, and the rewards of hard work amid a nagging fear that the economy's new dynamics expose average Americans to far more financial insecurity than earlier generations--and sentence the nation to more disruptive cycles of boom and bust. By overwhelming margins, those polled consistently have expressed faith that they can still achieve the American Dream, defined as the opportunity to advance as far as their talents will take them, and to live better than their parents. And yet, the surveys also find ominous cracks in that conviction, with many Americans, especially whites, growing pessimistic that their children will exceed, or even equal, their own standard of living.

This uneasy mix of anxiety and determination infuses all 11 surveys, which examined American attitudes toward a variety of economic trends and financial challenges from opportunity and risk to demographic change, global competition, the millennial generation's prospects, homeownership, public and private debt, and the changing nature of retirement. The polls make clear that the recession landed in the center of American life with the force of a natural disaster, even rattling groups usually sheltered from economic instability and shaking beliefs that have persisted for generations on issues ranging from the nature of retirement to the value of a college education.

One theme consistently winding through the polls is the emergence of what could be called a "reluctant self-reliance," as Americans look increasingly to reconstruct economic security from their own efforts, in part because they don't trust outside institutions to provide it for them. The surveys suggest that the battered economy has crystallized a gestating crisis of confidence in virtually all of the nation's public and private leadership class--from elected officials to the captains of business and labor. Taken together, the results render a stark judgment: At a time when they believe they are navigating much more turbulent economic waters than earlier generations, most Americans feel they are paddling alone. Shawn Kurt, an unemployed lumber-mill worker in Molalla, Ore., who responded to one survey, spoke for many when he plaintively declared, "I myself don't see no one trying to help me."

This complex set of opinions creates a turbulent political climate for both parties as the 2012 campaign intensifies. Most immediately, the surveys point to a closely fought presidential contest. In Heartland Monitor surveys over the past two years, President Obama has maintained an equivocal but remarkably stable position, recently facing a narrow plurality of disapproval on his performance, while consistently holding a narrow majority of hope on the direction he has set for the nation. After successive sharp swings toward the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and the Republicans in 2010, a broad array of the surveys' findings indicate that the 2012 presidential race will once again divide the country almost in half, as did the 2000 and 2004 campaigns that inspired talk of the "50-50 nation." No matter which side emerges from 2012 with an edge, the attitudes captured in the polls point toward years of sustained electoral volatility.

The Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor surveys have explored American attitudes on the changing economy each quarter since April 2009. The 11 polls, conducted by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Strategic Communications, a communications-strategy consulting firm, have surveyed between 1,000 and 1,200 adults each time, with a margin of error ranging between 2.8 and 3.1 percentage points. To provide more detailed data, several surveys oversampled specific populations, such as young people, retirees, and racial minorities.

The Great Recession could have lasting effects on how Americans spend, save, and borrow.

With the election year commencing, National Journal, in collaboration with FTI, has analyzed all 11 surveys to identify the central trends in public opinion as the nation passes through the dark valley of the Great Recession and its aftermath. That effort produced the following key conclusions about attitudes toward the economy and politics.

THE ECONOMY

Americans overall believe they have more opportunity than their parents, but whites are much more uncertain about their prospects than minorities. This question produced a sharp racial cleavage in the May 2011 Heartland Monitor survey. In that poll, 69 percent of African-Americans said they had more opportunity to get ahead than their parents; only 12 percent said they had less. Among Asians, the split was 67 percent more opportunity, 16 percent less; for Hispanics, the numbers were 62 and 17. But whites divided evenly, with 36 percent seeing more opportunity and 36 percent less. That pessimism was widespread in the white community: Whites with at least a four-year college degree were nearly as pessimistic as those without one.

By large margins, Americans believe they are exposed to more risk than earlier generations. A series of responses across the polls consistently show that preponderant majorities believe they are confronting greater financial risk than earlier generations. In the April 2009 survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they were exposed to more risks that threaten their standard of living than their parents were at the same age; just 11 percent thought they faced less risk. (Twenty-two percent thought they faced the same level of risk.) In the October 2009 poll, nearly four in five said it was likely that in the years ahead, "average families will suffer economic reversals, like losing a job or facing foreclosure on their homes, more often" than in the past. In the most recent poll, Americans split evenly on whether they will have a more or less secure retirement than their parents. However, those who are near retirement--workers who are at least 50 years old and still in the labor force--are much more likely to fear that their retirement will be more insecure.

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This sense of insecurity has inspired a search for safe harbors. The disruption of the Great Recession has instilled a desire for stability and security, in the workplace and investments. In the April 2009 poll, 52 percent said they preferred investment products that offered guaranteed but lower rates of return; only 39 percent said they preferred investments that offered them a chance of higher rates but more risk.

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In the July 2009 survey, nearly two-thirds said that their goal was a long-term job with a single employer; surprisingly, in the April 2010 survey, 55 percent of the millennial generation, fabled for preferring variety to stability, also echoed that sentiment. "I used to want more excitement, but now that I see people losing their jobs, and I've lost my job, stability has become my main goal," said Heather Person, a young college graduate who responded to the poll. "I just want to be able to get a job, pay the bills, and pay down my debt."

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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