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

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.

615 american flag.jpg


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.

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.


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.


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.


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."

Americans remain confident in their ability to navigate the economic risks. Across a wide variety of questions, the survey reported that Americans retain a robust faith in their ability to determine the conditions of their own lives. Although the breadth and severity of the Great Recession offers evidence to the contrary, about three-fifths of adults said in three separate surveys that their financial security depends mostly on their own actions; less than two-fifths said that events out of their control determine it. (African-Americans and Hispanics were even more likely than whites to say that their fates rest in their own hands.) In the March 2011 survey, three-fourths of those polled agreed that "the American Dream is still possible and achievable for ... people like you," and nearly three-fifths said that their own efforts, rather than the state of the economy, would most determine whether they achieved it.

Along parallel tracks, Americans consistently have expressed confidence, perhaps excessively, in their ability to manage financial challenges. For instance, in a March 2011 survey, 91 percent of homeowners said they took on the right amount of debt (although a third of adults, in the same survey, blamed the housing crash primarily on homeowners--presumably other homeowners--who took on too much debt). In that December 2011 survey, only 13 percent said they had little confidence in their ability to make financial decisions for their retirement.

Americans may be expressing that confidence in part because they believe they are paddling alone. In the struggle to achieve opportunity and security, Americans consistently have placed more faith in their own effort than in intervention from any other source, public or private. In the April 2009 survey, more people picked their own exertions over government programs, further government regulation, or new private-sector initiatives when asked how they could best secure their retirement, build assets for their families, or retain a reliable income. Repeatedly, majorities have said that their faith in institutions--including government, major corporations, and national banks--to make decisions that benefit average families is declining.

trusted most to make decisions that would improve opportunity and security for people like them, a meager 31 percent plurality picked elected officials, but even that modest mandate depended on the strong faith expressed by minorities. Among whites in every age group over 30, more selected "none" than any other option (which included corporations, banks, and labor unions). When asked in the January 2010 survey who has benefited the most from the federal government's efforts to end the financial crisis, 40 percent picked banks and investment companies; 20 percent identified major corporations; 16 percent selected wealthy individuals; and just 9 percent chose the middle class. In other words, Americans are convinced that the government's efforts to repair the economy after 2008 primarily benefited the same interests they believe caused the recession.


Majorities are questioning some of the assumed birthrights of mid-20th-century America. In the March 2011 poll, commanding majorities said that despite all the turmoil in the housing market, they still considered homeownership the right personal decision for themselves and their family. But the poll also found uncertainty that the nation's housing policy should continue to promote homeownership for society overall, as it has since the Depression. In the most striking result, a 51 percent majority said that Washington's efforts to expand homeownership had disrupted communities by encouraging "people to take on too much debt," while only 42 percent said it had stabilized communities "as homeownership has encouraged people to put down roots."

The surveys uncovered even greater ambivalence about the value of a college education, despite data showing that the earnings gap between adults with and without a four-year degree has widened since the 1960s. In the July 2009 survey, nearly three-fifths said they wished they had obtained more education. But in that same poll, 50 percent said they considered a college education "an economic burden that is often too expensive," while only 40 percent described it as "a ticket to the middle class." In the April 2010 survey, the millennial generation divided along similar lines. In what might be an especially poignant measure of disillusionment, older millennials already in the workforce were less inclined to see value in a college education than their younger counterparts.

The most recent survey also revealed diminishing expectations about retirement among "the anxious generation"--adults older than 50 who are still in the workforce. While nearly half of today's retirees said they had stopped working earlier than their parents did, fully half of the near-retirees expect to work longer. More than two-fifths of the near-retirees now believe they will remain in the workforce longer than they anticipated when they were younger. Many of those will continue working because they enjoy it, but nearly half of near-retirees say they expect to keep working part-time after their retirement out of necessity. To many of those in the anxious generation, a secure retirement seems as much an artifact of a lost mid-century America as tail fins and fallout shelters.

The recession has affected an unusually broad range of Americans and could produce long-lasting change in behavior. The surveys document the massive blast radius of this downturn. Not surprisingly, on most questions measuring changes in economic circumstances, the slowdown has imposed greater costs on those at the economy's margins--lower-income families, those without advanced education, and, in many cases, minorities. But partly because the downturn has affected not only income and employment but also housing and stock prices, it has reached into leafy cul-de-sacs often sheltered from such storms. In the March 2011 poll, for instance, families earning at least $100,000 were more likely than those earning less to report that their homes had declined in value. In the October 2011 survey, more than two-fifths of such affluent families, and nearly three-fifths of college graduates, said that the downturn had forced them to cut back on their spending either to pay down existing debt or avoid adding to it.

Consistently, the surveys found Americans declaring their intent to learn more about managing their money responsibly, to spend less, to pay down debt, and to avoid acquiring new debt; in particular, the fall 2011 survey found a moralistic, almost visceral, recoil from debt as a principal cause of the crash. "I would submit that the American Dream is self-determination, and enslaving yourself to creditors is no way to self-determination," said Jared Quincy, a Utah lawyer who responded to the poll. It's possible that as the economy recovers, these ringing pledges to live more frugally and to pay down debt will be honored mostly in the breach. But the consistent preferences suggest that the Great Recession could have lasting effects on how Americans spend, save, and borrow.

Americans are deeply divided and anxious over the trajectory of opportunity for the next generation, with whites again much more pessimistic than minorities. For many, the operative definition of the American Dream is that each generation will live better than its predecessor. Yet, in reaffirming earlier Heartland polls, the May 2011 survey found sharp divisions along racial lines over that prospect: While nearly three-fifths of Hispanics and African-Americans and nearly two-fifths of Asians believed their children will have more opportunity than they do, only 24 percent of whites agreed. And while only one-sixth of African-Americans, one-fifth of Hispanics, and one-fourth of Asians believed their children will have less opportunity, more than two-fifths of whites expected that fate. Whites with at least a college degree were even more pessimistic than whites without one. Equally striking, minorities were more likely than whites in the July 2009 survey to say that children from all income groups have an adequate opportunity to succeed. Meanwhile, just 36 percent of millennials in the April 2010 survey said they expected their standard of living to exceed their parents'.


Fears are widespread that the nation may lose its economic preeminence to China, although this concern is qualified by residual optimism that the U.S. can compete. In a November-December 2010 poll, only one in five said that the United States had the world's strongest economy; nearly half picked China instead. Even looking forward 20 years, just 34 percent said that the U.S. would have the world's top economy, compared with 37 percent who picked China. Americans believe the nation still possesses significant assets: Solid majorities say that the quality of our universities, corporate leadership, and workforce still exceeds those of other nations. But only about two-fifths say the same about our elementary and secondary education systems. Those mixed reviews help explain an ambivalent prognosis. While more than two-thirds say the United States can remain the world's manufacturing leader, nearly three-fifths agree that increasing competition from lower-paid workers around the world would prevent American living standards from rising as fast as they once did. As we wrote at the time, "Among the victims of the Great Recession, it seems, is any lingering assumption that America's historic economic advantages will guarantee prosperity in the future."


President Obama faces a sharply divided verdict on his performance and direction. Assessments of Obama's job performance have oscillated within a narrow range over the past two years. In eight Heartland Monitor polls since January 2010, Obama's approval rating crossed the telltale 50 percent threshold only once--in a May 2011 survey when he reached 51 percent. Otherwise, it has varied between 49 percent and 44 percent, his mark in the two most recent polls. Obama's disapproval rating has fluctuated between 41 percent and 50 percent. Obama's approval rating has been slightly net positive in five of the eight surveys, but negative in the past two. (The most recent survey was conducted in early December, before the payroll-tax fight with House Republicans that, according to several other polls, at least temporarily boosted Obama's approval rating back closer to 50 percent.)


Obama has consistently scored better on a question that asks Americans about the overall impact of his policies. In the eight surveys since January 2010, 35 percent to 40 percent of adults have consistently said that the country is worse off because of the policies Obama has implemented. But in each survey, Obama has retained a thin majority of hope between the share who say that his policies have already improved conditions in America (11 percent in the December 2011 poll) and those who say that his agenda has pointed the country in the right direction even if it hasn't produced benefits yet (43 percent). Obama's stronger, if still tenuous, showing on the forward-looking question underscores how critical it will be for him to persuade voters to view the election not only as a retrospective referendum on his first four years but as a prospective choice between the competing directions that he and his Republican opponent are offering.

Few Americans believe they are better off than when Obama was elected, but the country is closely divided on whether another president could have done better or would do better going forward. Ronald Reagan provided a lasting frame for presidential elections when he encouraged voters in 1980 to ask, "Are you are better off than you were four years ago?" In a previously unreleased finding from the December Heartland Monitor, just 23 percent of adults said they were better off than when Obama took office, although the share that said they were worse off (36 percent) was smaller than the group (40 percent) that said their condition hasn't changed since 2008. By more than 3-to-1, those surveyed agreed that the current state of the economy has more to do with "factors beyond President Obama's control" than with the policies he has pursued. But adults split evenly, 41 percent to 41 percent, when asked whether the country is "better off because Barack Obama won" in 2008 or would have been "better off if another candidate won." Looking forward, the country divided as evenly: 29 percent said they expected their financial situation would improve most over the next few years if Obama won, and an identical 29 percent said they expected bigger gains if a Republican won. In a telling measure of skepticism about both parties, 35 percent of adults (and 42 percent of independents) said that "neither" would improve their financial situation.

Neither party has a stable ideological majority for its vision of Washington's role in American life. On a bedrock question (which has been asked five times since January 2010) about the federal government's economic role, 33 percent to 40 percent of adults have expressed support for the Reaganesque conviction that "in the current economic environment, government is not the solution to our economic problems; government is the problem." Another 27 percent to 32 percent consistently have clustered around the opposite ideological pole, insisting that "the government must take an active role" in policing the market and expanding opportunity. The final approximately one-third of adults remain ambivalent, declaring that they are open to government activism in theory but in practice are skeptical that Washington can deliver what it promises. Infographic Likewise, when asked to choose between a conservative-leaning agenda that proposes to create opportunity by cutting taxes, spending, and regulation, and a liberal-leaning approach that emphasizes investment in education, training, infrastructure, and scientific research, the country has repeatedly divided nearly in half. Completing the picture, in the November-December 2010 poll, nearly three-fifths said they doubt that either party's agenda can solve the nation's problems. These findings underscore why Republicans and Democrats could both struggle to achieve a lasting advantage in an electoral competition that increasingly revolves around their widening philosophical dispute over Washington's influence on American life: With the country so closely divided, elections often turn on the shifts among results-driven voters who don't view their choices in those rigidly ideological terms.

Across these questions, the country is sharply polarized not only along partisan but also racial lines. On an array of measures, whites (especially, but not exclusively, older whites and those without college educations) express pervasive skepticism about government in general and Obama in particular. Since January 2010, the president's approval rating among whites has exceeded 40 percent only in that May 2011 poll; during that period, even with slippage at times among Hispanics, his rating among nonwhites has not dipped below 68 percent. Approximately four-fifths (or more) of nonwhites say that Obama's agenda has already produced benefits or set the country on the right course; in each of the past two surveys, about half of whites have said that the country is already worse off because of his approach. Looking forward, only one-fifth of whites (compared with nearly half of nonwhites) say they will be better off if Obama is reelected. Whites are also far more likely than nonwhites to endorse the view that government is more the problem than the solution. College-educated white women, who gave Obama a majority of their votes in 2008, remain more open to him (and government activism generally) than other whites, but even they are showing disillusionment, particularly with his economic performance.


Among whites, attitudes about racial change are now intertwined with attitudes about Obama, the role of government, and optimism about the future. In the May 2011 survey, about three-fifths of Asians and Hispanics, but only 45 percent of African-Americans and 39 percent of whites, expressed positive feelings about the propulsive demographic change that has swelled the minority share of the population past 36 percent. Both African-Americans supportive and dubious of the change displayed overwhelming support for Obama and his agenda. However, a wide chasm separated the 39 percent of whites who are positive on the change from the 53 percent who view it negatively. Whites uneasy about the development are more likely to say they have less opportunity than their parents; more likely to say their kids will have less opportunity than they do; more disappointed in Obama's performance; and more likely to describe government as the problem. Frequently the differences between the two groups were enormous. For instance, more than three-fifths of uneasy whites disapproved of Obama's job performance, while nearly three-fifths of the receptive whites approved. This doesn't mean that racial resentment is primarily, or even largely, driving opposition to Obama. But it does show that attitudes about racial change have intertwined with the broader set of beliefs that demarcate the two parties' coalitions. As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg has observed, the Democratic coalition increasingly reflects diverse America and the portions of white America that are comfortable with diversity. The GOP coalition revolves around the portions of white America (particularly older and noncollege whites) least comfortable with the ongoing transformation.


Despite deep pessimism about the country's direction, the latest poll offers some signs of optimism about better days ahead. In the December 2011 poll, a resounding 70 percent said that the country was on the wrong track. That's the highest level of discontent measured in any Heartland Monitor and an ominous sign for Obama, because historically a lopsided majority of voters who say the country is on the wrong track vote against an incumbent. But the survey offers the president a hint of spring: 56 percent of those surveyed, up from 50 percent in October, said they expect the economy to improve over the next year.

The downturn has crystallized an "America First" economic sentiment that is not fully represented by either party. Through a broad range of questions, a substantial constituency displays an impulse toward economic nationalism that doesn't precisely follow conventional free-trade or protectionist positions. In summer and fall 2010 polls, about one-fourth of respondents each time embraced a free-trade posture of encouraging international trade, investment, and immigration; one-third embraced a protectionist approach of tariffs on imports and limits on immigration and investment; and another third backed a quasi-industrial-policy approach that aims to nurture key U.S. industries with targeted tax incentives, training, and government support for scientific research. Other questions in those two surveys unearthed a consistent desire to find new ways to compete in global markets, rather than retreat from them. Infographic That instinct was manifest by the two-thirds of respondents who supported a domestic-content requirement that would require a minimum percentage of all manufactured goods sold in the United States to be assembled or produced here--an idea not seriously discussed since the early 1980s. Similar percentages identified two other ideas as keys to recovery: businesses repatriating more of their foreign operations and consumers buying more American products. Policies to promote exports and fortify key industries consistently outpolled efforts to restrict imports.

Taken together, these combustible ingredients virtually guarantee sustained electoral volatility. The Heartland Monitor surveys document pervasive dissatisfaction with the nation's direction; deep apprehension about the opportunity for future generations (particularly among whites); a collapse of faith in the public and private leadership class; intense political polarization that largely tracks racial lines; and the absence of a reliable majority for either side's vision of government's role in society, all leavened only by individual Americans' reluctant self-reliance and their tenacious faith in their own ability to manage the mounting financial risks they see confronting them.

Those attitudes cumulatively resemble the sentiments a poll might find in a Third World country before a coup. This swirling discontent won't produce such a response here, but it could make more common the severe and abrupt swings between the parties that characterized the 2006, 2008, and 2010 elections. As long as Americans feel so economically vulnerable, neither party may enjoy much job security in Washington.

This article appeared in the January 7 issue of National Journal.