WASHINGTON—Findings from a highly respected national survey found a significant amount of economic pessimism by the vast majority of Americans, despite the official end of the recession and current unemployment at 5 percent. The 2015 American Values Survey also documented polarization on several social issues, including immigration, terrorism, racial discrimination, cost of education, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. The white working-class emerged as a troubled, isolated group, holding beliefs at odds with other groups.
Released at Brookings Institution on Nov. 17 as a booklet titled, “Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust: Findings from the 2015 American Values Survey,” it was discussed at a forum co-hosted by Brookings Institution Governance Studies and Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which is responsible for what is its sixth annual AVS.
The survey had almost 2,700 respondents, who were representative of the national U.S. adult population from the 50 states in September and early October. The margin of error is +/- 2.6 percentage points. NORC (whose legal name is National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago handled the technicalities of the survey, including sample selection, survey design, interviewing, and weighting results.
Some of the results were especially surprising and counter-intuitive.
Pessimism About America’s Future
An indication of Americans’ negative outlook toward the economy is that more than seven in ten (72 percent) believe that the country still is in recession, which officially ended in June 2009, but the economy has had a sluggish recovery.
There is wide agreement that blame for the sluggish economy falls on business corporations moving American jobs overseas. Eighty-six percent of Americans say this factor is somewhat or very responsible for the current economic slump. The figure is 12 percent higher from 74 percent in 2012. Also, large percentages of Americans say corporations don’t pay workers a fair wage (77 percent), and mention China’s unfair trade practices (73 percent).
Burdensome government regulations (69 percent) and illegal immigrants (54 percent) were also cited often as at least somewhat responsible for the country’s economic woes.
“Americans are not confident that we fixed what went wrong,” said Karlyn Bowman, who is senior fellow and research coordinator at the American Enterprise Institute. Bowman, who studies American public opinion, said that in the fall of 2008 when the recession commenced, “many believed that the economic system would collapse.” People were very much afraid and the polls picked up on it. Fear is not often seen in public opinion polling, she said. The 2008/2009 recession still has a “profound effect” on the “public psychology.”
Best Days Are Ahead or Behind?
Bowman suggested that the persistent economic pessimism regarding the Great Recession is driving the decline in agreement that the country affords equal opportunity. The survey found that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans believe, in the words of the question asked, “One of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.” In 2010, the survey reported only 53 percent for the same question.
Another substantial change was over the percentage who agree that hard work is no guarantee to economic success. In the 2015 survey, 64 percent agreed compared to 54 percent in 2013, a 10 point increase.
Pessimism is also evident from answers as to whether America’s best days are yet to come. “Today, Americans are evenly divided over whether America’s best days are ahead of us (49 percent) or behind us (49 percent). In 2012, a majority (54 percent) of the public says that America’s best days were ahead, while fewer than four in ten (38 percent) said that they were behind,” states the report.
However, the degree of pessimism expressed about the future varies widely when respondents are broken down by race, social class, religious affiliation, and political affiliation. Among the differences found, the biggest surprise is the finding that views on America’s future are strongly aligned with political affiliation. The majority of Democrats (59 percent) say America’s best days are ahead of us, compared to 47 percent of independents, and only 41 percent of persons who identify with the Republican Party.
Fifty-eight percent of Republicans answered that America’s best days are behind us.
Tea Party members are still more pessimistic. Only one-third (33 percent) say that the country’s best days are ahead, while 65 percent say they are in the past.
White Working-Class Malaise
The second “story” that stands out from the survey data is the negativity of the white working-class., especially white working-class men.
“Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of white working-class Americans say the fact that not everyone is given an equal chance in life is a big problem, a view shared by significantly fewer (55 percent) white college-educated Americans,” states the report. A ten percentage point difference between white working-class and white college–educated appears on the agreement that working hard does not necessarily lead to success (68 vs. 58 percent, respectively).
The reason for the attitude is due to stagnant performing wages, said Henry Olsen, senior fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Most people who have not been to college have not seen a raise in real terms since the Clinton administration,” he said. Olsen said the white working-class men display a greater disengagement from the labor work force, with early retirement, many over 50 increasingly going on disability, and more reliance on various public subsidies.
The survey found that 62 percent of white working-class Americans say that American culture has been getting worse since the 1950s, compared to 49 percent of white college educated Americans. (On this question, the percentages in agreement of white men and white women are about the same.) Contrast this view with black Americans, whom 60 percent believe that American culture has changed for the better since the 1950s.
Three in five (60 percent) white working-class Americans believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, often called “reverse discrimination.” Only 36 percent of white college-educated Americans agree that discrimination of whites has become a big problem. Few Hispanics (29 percent) and black Americans (25 percent) agree with this view.
Joy Reid, host of the Reid Report on MSNBC, said that people today can’t even agree what constitutes racism. The divergence of views is as intense as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, she said. She said that white working-class and Republicans in general turned the page on this historical issue and say racism is now against them.
Loss of Public Respect
The survey found that 45 percent of white working-class Americans say crime is a major problem in their community, compared to 33 percent of white college-educated Americans.
Olsen said that in the 19050s and 1960s, the white working-class embodied American virtues, and were respected. “I don’t think you would go into a white working-class neighborhood now and consider their virtues, their way of life worthy of respect in popular culture,” he said.
On the question of whether America’s best days are ahead alluded to above, only 42 percent of white working-class Americans are optimistic, compared to 56 percent who say the best days are past.
Olsen said, “It is no wonder that they consider America’s past days behind us because to them they are.”
Reid said, “In almost every way, Donald Trump reflects the anxieties and priorities of white working-class voters.” The survey found that 55 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who support Trump identify as white working-class. Only 35 percent of those supporting other Republican candidates are white working-class.
The survey found that nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of Trump supporters agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.
Economist Paul Krugman in a recent opinion article in the NY Times wrote that mortality of middle-aged white Americans has been rising since 1999, while death rates have been falling steadily for other groups in the United States. He notes, “Suicide is way up, and so are deaths from drug poisoning and [excessive drinking].”
Less Tolerant of Immigrants
Sixty-three percent of white working-class Americans say they feel bothered when they come into contact with immigrants who do not speak English, compared to 43 percent of white college-educated Americans, and 48 percent overall.
“Nearly seven in ten (69 percent) Trump supporters say that immigration is a critical issue to them personally. In contrast, only half (50 percent) of those who support other candidates say that the issue of immigration is critically important to them,” states the report.
White Working-Class in Revolt
William Galston, senior fellow at Brookings and who co-moderated the event, said that white working-class voters deserted the Democratic Party during the Nixon era and have become a key component of the Republican base. They have been persuaded by the “economic conservatism and tough foreign policy.” But now they are in “full revolt” against Republicans’s economic policies, such as trade treaties and immigration reform, which are perceived as inimical to their interests.
The survey found that the white working-class Americans share some consensus views of the mainstream, such as being in favor of raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and paid sick leave, expressing distrust of business corporations, and opposing moving jobs overseas.
Olsen, who said he is a Republican and wants to see his party not lose elections, said that the party establishment needs to support tax reform that has less emphasis on helping those at the top. The theory that lowering taxes on the wealthy—the so-called ‘job creators’—to produce economic growth is not persuasive to the white working-class, he said.