WE SHALL OVERCOME
As from the beginning, the latest Heartland Monitor finds that the strains of the Great Recession and its grueling aftermath have not cracked the public’s bedrock optimism that America can meet the complex political and economic challenges confronting it. Exactly two-thirds of those polled say they believe the nation eventually “will overcome these challenges … just like we’ve done with other major challenges throughout our history.” Slightly under one-third believe that “Americans are facing a unique set of challenges that are so serious that we might not be able to overcome them.” The sense of mastery is widely shared across racial, class, and generational lines (although a 49 percent plurality of Romney voters, probably reflecting disappointment over Obama’s victory, take the pessimistic view). “We’ve had hard times in our history that have been very challenging—far more challenging than what we just went through,” said Karten, the New Jersey homemaker.
Yet also like earlier surveys, this poll finds that optimism tempered by the fear that the hard times of recent years represent a “new normal” of diminished opportunity, particularly for young people, and widening insecurity. “I don’t think that anything will be comfy cozy again, where everyone could buy a house and take a vacation—that’s a reality for a small share of people,” says Segel, the retired tile-setter.
To Arron Neal, a young communications consultant in Los Angeles, life milestones that an earlier generation considered a birthright seem almost beyond reach for her and her husband. “We’d love to be able to buy a home, but it just seems like such an unattainable goal,” she says. Weber, the special-education teacher, says she and her husband (also a teacher) expect to be paying off their student loans “until we die.” Although they are both employed, she says, “we might not even be in the middle class. We’re probably in the lower classes…. I don’t think the middle class will get much better because of the cost of living. Wages might go up, but they’re not going up as fast as the cost of living. Job opportunities—I don’t see that increasing.”
This sense of exposure to a diverse set of economic risks permeates the responses to another question that asked respondents to rank a series of personal concerns on the zero-to-10 scale. Topping the list are worries about the availability of Social Security (8.1) and being able to retire comfortably (8.0). Four other concerns cluster close behind at 7.5 or above: the cost of health care, job security, the price of energy, and being able to afford education for yourself or your children “that will lead to a good job.” At least 70 percent of those responding describe themselves as extremely concerned about each of those challenges.
These responses converge more across racial and party lines than the answers about the country’s top near- and long-term priorities, with one exception. Minorities and Democrats place a much higher emphasis than whites and Republicans do on the cost and quality of education. Amanda, a young Hispanic mother in Leesburg, Fla., who declined to give her last name, is struggling to pay off loans she took out to obtain a health care credential. “You’re not going to get anywhere without education,” she says, “but with them cutting budgets, it just makes things worse when you go to college. I know how hard it is when you are getting phone calls from the student-debt companies grilling you about when you are going to repay.”
DOUBTS ABOUT WASHINGTON
In the survey, Americans express modest optimism that Washington will make progress over the next four years on this formidable array of challenges. Asked how effectively the federal government will deal with half a dozen key problems, only about one-third say they expect policymakers to be “not very” or “not at all” effective in stabilizing Social Security and Medicare, creating jobs, improving the public education system, and growing the economy. But less than one-fourth say they expect Washington to be “very effective” in grappling with each of those challenges. In every case, the largest group, around two-fifths of respondents, offer the lukewarm expectation that the government will be “somewhat effective” in generating progress.
The balance tilts further toward pessimism on another priority: creating a business climate that promotes innovation and entrepreneurship. The public is, by far, most dubious that Washington will control the federal deficit, with a 51 percent majority picking the two most pessimistic options. That response is driven partly by overwhelming skepticism among Republicans, but almost three-fifths of independents also expect little progress on blotting the red ink.
Another question measuring expectations about broader trends through Obama’s second term produced a similarly arid forecast. Only 51 percent of those surveyed say they expect the economy to improve over the next four years. Even smaller percentages expect improvement in their personal financial situation (39 percent); the economic well-being of middle-class Americans (36 percent); narrowing the income gap between rich and everyone else (36 percent); and lessening the federal deficit (34 percent.) More respondents expect taxes to increase (62 percent) and government spending to rise (51 percent). Still, only one-fourth look for government spending to increase on programs that would benefit people like them.