One of the occupational hazards of being a political analyst is the tendency to become too dependent on the reams of polling data and economic numbers that come out every week. So it’s refreshing to get a chance to observe focus groups and listen to Americans talking plainly about their lives, beliefs, and concerns, about politics and their leaders—and to watch their emotions, facial expressions, and reactions to what others say. You come away with insights you can’t find in polling cross tabs and monthly economic reports.
The hard data are irrefutable. Last month, the Census Bureau reported that 46.2 million Americans were living below the poverty level, the most in the 52 years that the number has been computed. Two former census officials recently released a report showing that not only did median household income (after inflation) drop by 3.2 percent during the official periods of the Great Recession, December 2007 to June 2009, it then dropped another 6.7 percent between the statistical end of the recession and June of this year; all told, the drop was just under 10 percent. American families have lost ground over the past decade. The plunge in real household incomes shows a reality contrary to this country’s tradition of upward mobility, of each generation having greater opportunity than the previous one.
The statistics are one thing, but hearing Americans talk about their experiences is something else. Last September, Wal-Mart Stores commissioned two polling firms, Public Opinion Strategies from the Republican side and Momentum Analysis from the Democratic side, to conduct three focus groups with “Walmart moms” in the Denver, Philadelphia, and St. Louis metropolitan areas. The 10 or so participants in each group were mothers who had children under 18 at home and who had shopped at a Walmart in the previous month. During the 2008 election campaign, Public Opinion Strategies identified Walmart moms, about 14 to 17 percent of the electorate, as a key swing-voter subgroup. Polling shows that these women are pretty evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and that most voted for President Obama in 2008 and gave a narrow edge for Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections.
In early October, Neil Newhouse and Alex Bratty from Public Opinion Strategies and Margie Omero from Momentum Analysis oversaw three more focus groups with Walmart moms, in Des Moines, Iowa, Manchester, N.H., and Orlando, Fla. With the giant retail chain’s primary market made up of working- and middle-class Americans, it has a vested interest in the economic well-being of the people shopping in Walmart stores. But these focus groups also serve another purpose, to give voice to those who make up a sizable slice of the electorate and whom politicians are least likely to meet. These folks don’t go to political fundraisers and usually aren’t political activists; they are not likely to be at the local chamber luncheon or Rotary, Lions, or Kiwanis Club. They don’t have much clout with elected officials individually and probably don’t belong to any group that has a PAC or a lobbyist. But they struggle every day with the policies made in Washington and live on the front lines of the U.S. economy, more vulnerable than most people that members of Congress are likely to regularly encounter.
Each of the women in the groups had her own story to tell, but some common themes emerged. One 50-year-old New Hampshire woman said that her husband had been laid off for nine months and on his first day back at work, she got laid off from her job. Another mom recounted how her husband left her, forcing her to declare bankruptcy; she and her kids moved into her parents’ home, only to see her father, who had worked for a bank for 16 years, get laid off as well. But even for those who hadn’t had such a calamity, life was hard and getting harder.
They said they clipped coupons, shopped strategically to find the best prices—anything to save a dime here, a quarter there. As other women nodded in agreement, one woman talked about praying to come up with $20 to put gas in the car to get her kids to school and herself to work.
Another common thread among participants was an acknowledgment that they had made bad choices when the economy was booming. Whether it was going out to eat too many nights when they should have been saving money by eating at home or taking on a mortgage that was too big, they said they had made decisions they now regret. They feel wiser today. As one New Hampshire woman put it, “The last couple of years, the fun is gone. Everything has consequences.”
But listening to the stories of struggle and day-in, day-out hardship, one gets a strong sense of a personal spirit, a hope, a determination to make things work, and a belief that work and sacrifice will help get them through this. Despite what they’ve been through, these women still have a sense of optimism that seems such a part of the American spirit. That was the uplifting part of watching these groups: hearing that determination even while one mom told of having to tell her kids that they wouldn’t be getting much for Christmas because “Santa is poor this year.”
This article appears in the October 22, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.