Asked in October 2009 whom they trusted most to make decisions that would improve opportunity and security for people like them, a meager 31 percent plurality picked elected officials, but even that modest mandate depended on the strong faith expressed by minorities. Among whites in every age group over 30, more selected “none” than any other option (which included corporations, banks, and labor unions). When asked in the January 2010 survey who has benefited the most from the federal government’s efforts to end the financial crisis, 40 percent picked banks and investment companies; 20 percent identified major corporations; 16 percent selected wealthy individuals; and just 9 percent chose the middle class. In other words, Americans are convinced that the government’s efforts to repair the economy after 2008 primarily benefited the same interests they believe caused the recession.
Majorities are questioning some of the assumed birthrights of mid-20th-century America. In the March 2011 poll, commanding majorities said that despite all the turmoil in the housing market, they still considered homeownership the right personal decision for themselves and their family. But the poll also found uncertainty that the nation’s housing policy should continue to promote homeownership for society overall, as it has since the Depression. In the most striking result, a 51 percent majority said that Washington’s efforts to expand homeownership had disrupted communities by encouraging “people to take on too much debt,” while only 42 percent said it had stabilized communities “as homeownership has encouraged people to put down roots.”
The surveys uncovered even greater ambivalence about the value of a college education, despite data showing that the earnings gap between adults with and without a four-year degree has widened since the 1960s. In the July 2009 survey, nearly three-fifths said they wished they had obtained more education. But in that same poll, 50 percent said they considered a college education “an economic burden that is often too expensive,” while only 40 percent described it as “a ticket to the middle class.” In the April 2010 survey, the millennial generation divided along similar lines. In what might be an especially poignant measure of disillusionment, older millennials already in the workforce were less inclined to see value in a college education than their younger counterparts.
Americans say they have no choice but to count on themselves in weathering the turbulent economic times. A report on the key themes that have emerged from nearly three years of Heartland Monitor polls.
The most recent survey also revealed diminishing expectations about retirement among “the anxious generation”—adults older than 50 who are still in the workforce. While nearly half of today’s retirees said they had stopped working earlier than their parents did, fully half of the near-retirees expect to work longer. More than two-fifths of the near-retirees now believe they will remain in the workforce longer than they anticipated when they were younger. Many of those will continue working because they enjoy it, but nearly half of near-retirees say they expect to keep working part-time after their retirement out of necessity. To many of those in the anxious generation, a secure retirement seems as much an artifact of a lost mid-century America as tail fins and fallout shelters.
The recession has affected an unusually broad range of Americans and could produce long-lasting change in behavior. The surveys document the massive blast radius of this downturn. Not surprisingly, on most questions measuring changes in economic circumstances, the slowdown has imposed greater costs on those at the economy’s margins—lower-income families, those without advanced education, and, in many cases, minorities. But partly because the downturn has affected not only income and employment but also housing and stock prices, it has reached into leafy cul-de-sacs often sheltered from such storms. In the March 2011 poll, for instance, families earning at least $100,000 were more likely than those earning less to report that their homes had declined in value. In the October 2011 survey, more than two-fifths of such affluent families, and nearly three-fifths of college graduates, said that the downturn had forced them to cut back on their spending either to pay down existing debt or avoid adding to it.
Consistently, the surveys found Americans declaring their intent to learn more about managing their money responsibly, to spend less, to pay down debt, and to avoid acquiring new debt; in particular, the fall 2011 survey found a moralistic, almost visceral, recoil from debt as a principal cause of the crash. “I would submit that the American Dream is self-determination, and enslaving yourself to creditors is no way to self-determination,” said Jared Quincy, a Utah lawyer who responded to the poll. It’s possible that as the economy recovers, these ringing pledges to live more frugally and to pay down debt will be honored mostly in the breach. But the consistent preferences suggest that the Great Recession could have lasting effects on how Americans spend, save, and borrow.