In the global race for jobs and economic prosperity, the United States is No. 2. And it is likely to remain there for some time. That’s the glum conclusion of most Americans surveyed in the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll. Henry Luce famously labeled the 20th century the “American Century.” This survey suggests that most Americans now doubt that this new century will bear that name.
In the poll, only one in five Americans said that the U.S. economy is the world’s strongest—nearly half picked China instead. Looking forward, Americans are somewhat more optimistic about regaining primacy, but still only about one in three expect the U.S. economy to be the world’s strongest in 20 years. Nearly three-fifths of those surveyed said that increasing competition from lower-paid workers around the world will keep living standards for average Americans from growing as fast as they did in the past. Ruben Owen, a retired Boeing engineer in Seattle who responded to the survey, spoke for many when he said, “We’re still in a reasonably good place … but it’s going to get harder because other places are growing stronger.”
Across a wide range of issues, the poll found the traditional American instinct toward optimism straining against fears that the nation’s economic struggles may extend far beyond the current slowdown. On many fronts, particularly the quality of higher education and scientific research, large majorities of Americans still believe that we lead the world. And most say that the U.S. can remain a manufacturing leader.
But the survey reveals deep anxiety about the impact on the American economy of increased globalization; the decades-long shift in domestic employment from manufacturing toward services; the quality of decisions by government and business leaders; and the economic prospects for younger generations.
In follow-up conversations, several of those polled struggled to maintain hope that their children will live better than they have, against growing unease that it won’t turn out that way. “I would like to say yes,” said Dana Rigby, a homemaker in Kirksville, Mo., when asked if she expected her children’s living standards to exceed her own. “I’m trying to get my kids on the right path; who doesn’t want that? But I don’t know if there’s going to be enough out there for all the young kids to have good jobs.”
Conducted after a tumultuous midterm election, the poll captured a populace that remains uneasy, ambivalent, and divided. The nation is split almost exactly in half over President Obama’s job performance and over whether he or congressional Republicans should take the lead in confronting the country’s problems. Just as tellingly, few of those polled expect their economic situation to improve much over the next year, and most say they are skeptical that either party’s agenda can achieve the nation’s major challenges. As America lurches into its third consecutive winter of discontent, confidence in the political system and optimism about the economy remain scarce.
AMERICA’S STANDING IN THE WORLD
The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll is the seventh in a series exploring the ways that Americans are navigating the changing economy. The poll, conducted by Ed Reilly and Brent McGoldrick of FD, a communications strategy consulting firm, surveyed 1,200 adults from November 29 through December 1. It has a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percentage points. This survey focused on Americans’ view of the nation’s standing in the global economic competition and on the role they see for manufacturing in the U.S. economy.
On several fronts, those surveyed said that the United States still compares well with other nations. Nearly three-fourths said that the U.S. leads all or most of its major competitors in the quality of its colleges and universities, and about two-thirds offer the same verdict on American science and research. To Julie Gordon, a computer programmer in Yorktown, Va., those advantages are grounds for optimism about the nation’s long-term prospects. “Definitely in areas of science and technology there is potential,” she said. “If we do focus on educating our young people in the right fields, we do have the right [prospects].”
Slightly smaller majorities give the nation high marks on two other key measures of competitiveness: 57 percent said that the U.S. outranks most competitors in the quality of corporate leaders, and 56 percent reached the same judgment on the quality of the American workforce. “I think we have a fairly well-trained workforce,” said Bill Scherer, a trucking-company manager in St. Joseph, Minn. “I think that would probably be the biggest benefit … that would help us compete against China.”
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On other horizons, though, Americans see more clouds. Just half say that the U.S. beats out most of its competitors in the quality of government programs to encourage growth; only 46 percent said that business and government cooperate more effectively in the U.S. than in other nations. Most strikingly, only 43 percent said that the U.S. leads most other nations in the quality of elementary and secondary education; 53 percent said that we trail our major competitors. That pessimistic sentiment was broadly shared. At least half of both the affluent and the working class, and half of those with and without college educations, saw U.S. primary education as lagging.
Scott Bland contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the December 12, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.