Although I post a lot on public opinion polls, that doesn’t mean I take them as gospel, even when they don’t deal with trade policy (where, as I’ve shown, they tend to be incompetently constructed). These new sets of survey results from Gallup – a pioneer in the business – show us why.
Gallup consistently has been reporting that Americans’ views of the nation’s economy and of their own economic circumstances have improved significantly in recent months. Notably, since these questions started being asked in 2008, record high shares of Americans now consider themselves to be “thriving” and record low shares believe that they’re “struggling.” Not surprisingly, as a result, the greatest percentage of respondents since the recession began told Gallup that their own financial situations have strengthened in the last year, and the share stating that they’re worse off financially over the last 12 months is approaching pre-recession lows.
The public is more optimistic about the future, too – at least according to Gallup. After languishing in negative territory throughout the recession (often deeply so), the company’s economic confidence reading has turned slightly positive over the last month, and has stayed above zero (neutral) since. Pretty encouraging, right?
But then how can we explain Gallup’s new results on how Americans perceive their greatest financial problems?
Actually, the first problem with this poll is that it’s not clear whether respondents are being asked about their own family’s biggest financial problems or the nation’s as a whole. Even so, however, the answers are still pretty weird given those results above.
In particular, every single one of the top ten problems listed makes clear that Americans don’t have the money they need. They are (in descending order): health-care costs, inadequate wages and “money”, too much debt, college expenses, retirement costs, housing costs, overall living costs, job loss, taxes, and inadequate savings. In fact, if you add up all the percentages of respondents identifying these problems – which all look pretty serious to me – as their biggest, you get 75 percent. That strikes me as an awfully high level of financial distress.
Over the last year, the results in four of the ten possibilities worsened, they remained the same in one (retirement savings), and improved significantly only on the inflation, jobs, and college costs fronts. At the same time, the share of respondents who specified no top financial problems (the answer possibilities were open-ended) rose from 12 to 17 percent, and made up the largest single answer.
If you can make head or tail of this crazy quilt of responses, let me know. Till then, I’ll be taking the expression “United States of Confusion” a lot more seriously.