How Do Americans Feel About Where They Live?

Surprisingly, most say their communities are heading in the right direction.

Clockwise: Max Whittaker/Reuters, Stringer/Reuters, David Ryder/Reuters, Stringer/Reuters

With a still-shaky economy, widespread political division, and lingering unemployment issues, the question of how Americans feel about the places they live, and whether or not things are getting better, is a pretty loaded one.

The most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll asked Americans to assess how they feel about the cities and towns that they call home. The poll culled the responses of 1,000 people and found that about two-thirds of respondents said that they felt like their little corners of the world are, in fact, improving.

Class and income seemed to have some bearing on how positively—or negatively—people felt about local conditions, with 78 percent of respondents from households that made more than $100,000 saying they felt good about the direction of their local community. Only 55 percent of those from households that made less than $30,000 felt similarly. Being employed helped too, with 69 percent of those who had full-time jobs agreeing that things were looking up. Those who were working full-time were also much more likely to give local leaders their approval than those who were unemployed.

By and large, people were negative about the state of their local economies, with fewer than 10 percent of respondents rating the economy in their community as "excellent." When it came to rating these economies in binary terms, people were still more negative than positive, with 57 percent of those surveyed saying that their local economy was fair or poor, instead of good or excellent.

For those who fell into lower economic groups, almost 80 percent said that their local economy was in poor shape. For the highest economic groups? Fewer than 40 percent of respondents thought that the economy deserved failing marks. Lesley Whitecoff, a resident of Annapolis, Maryland, says that in general she thinks that her city is doing fairly well economically, but she also understands that residents likely feel very differently depending on their economic status. “Annapolis is a very interesting city. We have the haves and the have-nots and we don’t have a large middle section. I think the economy is doing well for the haves, from what I perceive. For the have-nots, I don’t think it’s very prosperous for them,” she said in an interview.

According to the poll results, race also factored into how people viewed the status and future of their communities. For men and women who identified as white or Hispanic, two-thirds or more said that things were headed in the right direction, with Hispanic men being the most optimistic. But black people weren’t quite as positive. Black men fell just slightly below other groups, with 63 percent agreeing that things were headed in the correct direction—but black women? Only 57 percent had a positive outlook on the question, the lowest of any racial and gender combination. Meanwhile, Hispanic respondents were more likely to rate their local economy as fair or poor (with nearly two-thirds responding as such) than other racial and ethnic groups.

Of course, the types of areas and neighborhoods that people live in also play a role in how they view the outlook of their communities. Those who lived in the suburbs were most likely to say that things were on the upswing, while rural respondents were much less likely to have a positive outlook on the future of their communities. Rural respondents were also more likely than those who lived in more metropolitan areas to say that the economy in their area was in the tank, while those who lived in cities were split almost evenly on the question.

And it turns out that how people feel about their local economies is pretty important, because the vast majority—51 percent—said they don’t think that much will change over the next 12 months. Overall, minorities were more likely to be optimistic about the future of their local economies, with higher percentages saying that there was a likelihood for improvement than among their white counterparts. And Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans or independents to feel positively as well.

Which brings up another important consideration: how people feel about the leadership in their communities. About 60 percent of total poll respondents said that they approved of the job their local politicians were doing, but those numbers dropped when the responses of minorities and those from lower-income groups were singled out.

Sandy Billups, a resident of Norristown, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, says that things in her area are on the decline and that the economy and faulty leadership have a lot to do with it. “It’s gotten to the point where nothing gets done because if you’re Republican you want it one way, and Democrats want another—it’s a tug of war,” Billups says. “The economy is bad, so that raises the crime [rate], and the cops seem to look the other way.” Billups isn't the only one who thinks that the crime rate is a problem. Overall, poll respondents were pretty evenly split on whether or not crime and public safety was an issue in their communities.

It’s all part of a problematic cycle, Billups says. She says that she's been forced onto disability leave due to her Multiple sclerosis, but that her husband still works pretty regularly. Still, they can’t afford to pick up and move to a place where things are better. On top of that, she says that her 23-year-old daughter and her young grandson are currently living with her, and she worries that they, too, will get stuck. Their location puts her daughter in a difficult spot too, since she has good access to aid programs like WIC, but few opportunities for steady work, Billups says. “It’s problems on top of problems. I need to get her out of here, I don't want my grandson to have any parts of this. ”

For more on the methodology of the Heartland Monitor Poll, see here.