What Can Americans Do to Improve Their Cities and Towns?

A new national poll shows that people are looking to local businesses, non-profits, and volunteers for bold solutions--not to federal government.

Americans may be fed up with national politics and the paralysis in Washington, but that does not mean that they've given up on finding solutions to the country's most vexing social and economic problems.

Instead, Americans increasingly are turning toward community organizations, small businesses, and local governments for fixes, according to the recent Heartland Monitor Poll, conducted in partnership with Allstate and National Journal. In doing so, they are upending the long-held notion that only the federal government has the ingenuity and resources to solve the big questions.

After all, that has long been the stance of Americans and policymakers—to turn to the federal government when something major goes wrong: when the economy sours, the housing bubble bursts, or when millions of Americans find themselves unemployed. That reflex makes sense. Federal government policies provided unemployment benefits to millions of Americans when companies shed jobs in 2009. Going further back, the federal government's mortgage giants helped to foster in this country a culture of homeownership, something deeply ingrained not just in our economy, but in our notion of the American Dream.

But recent battles over national politics, government spending, and the future direction of the country have turned off Americans from federal-level solutions, according to national polling data. Now, Americans are looking locally for ideas of ways to improve their lives. Of the 1,000 Americans surveyed by the Heartland Monitor Poll, 32 percent of them attributed improvements in their local area over the last 10 years to businesses; another 30 percent gave credit to community groups. Just 15 percent said that government policies helped to make life better. (To be fair, both Democrats and African-Americans expressed roughly the same amount of confidence in government policies that they held in local businesses and community groups).

Americans want big, innovative ideas to come from local leaders, businesses, and institutions. Of those surveyed, 71 percent said that they'd prefer local institutions to try out new ideas, even if the outcome may be uncertain. A mere 20 percent said they preferred "tried and tested ideas and solutions," further highlighting the backlash against the status quo at the national level.

So, where can these solutions come from? Well, Americans see local businesses, lower property taxes, volunteering, and local investments by the government in education and transportation as the best sources of improvements in the quality of life in local areas. Those between the ages of 18 to 29 and 60 to 64 thought that local investment in education and transportation was the best bet. By far, according to the poll, Americans favored local businesses as the best source of job opportunities—followed much further behind by national or global businesses, or government agencies.

Even a seemingly innocuous question (about rating the different ways to address the challenges in one's community) reveals people's preference for homegrown solutions. Of those surveyed, 89 percent said that investments made by local businesses would greatly improve their communities, 84 percent said the same about nonprofits and local volunteers, while 83 percent said that local and state government programs would greatly benefit the local area. Just 67 percent of people surveyed said that programs from the federal government would help local communities a great deal, and 30 percent of respondents said that federal government programs would not help local communities very much, if at all.

This hyper-focus on local efforts also gives Americans a greater sense of their own agency in solving problems: 47 percent of people surveyed said that buying from local and small businesses has the greatest impact on improving life in one's local area, while 29 percent cited voting in local elections as key, and 20 percent favored volunteering for community organizations. And 53 percent of those surveyed said that their personal resources, like time and money, gave them more ability to make an impact in their local areas. That feeling was particularly strong among people age 39 and younger, according to the polling data.

If Americans prefer grassroots action, then they also see the climate for homegrown solutions improving in small ways: 41 percent of people surveyed said that average people had more influence now than they did 10 years ago in bringing about changes in their local areas. Interestingly, women of all ages felt like they had more influence now over local issues than men, of all ages, felt like they had.

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll is the 22nd in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll, which explored how Americans rate conditions in their communities and whether they prefer local or national institutions to take the lead in responding to the country's challenges, surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones from February 18 through 22, 2015. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Consulting's Strategic Communications practice.