Fifty-four percent of Americans surveyed in the Pew Research Center's latest poll said there had been a time in the past year when they or someone in their household had been without a job or looking for work. A year ago 39% gave that response. That's a huge change--and only one of the many survey indicators revealing the widespread pain from the recession. In another question in the poll, only 10% said there were plenty of jobs available in their communities, while 85% said jobs were hard to find.
This shift in the public's mood is just as glaring when you compare answers to polling questions now with when the economy was doing well. In the new Pew poll, 24% of respondents said they have had problems paying their rent or mortgage, up from 13% in a 1999 Washington Post survey. Friday the administration announced new steps to deal with record foreclosures, which could climb to 4.5 million this year, up from 2.8 million in 2009. Twenty-eight percent in a new Kaiser Family Foundation survey said they had skipped a recommended medical test in the past year; 15% gave that response in 2000. Twenty-six percent now said they hadn't filled a prescription, up from 13% in 2000.
Many in the middle class report they are worried about staying there. In a new ABC News and Washington Post poll, a plurality described themselves as middle-class. Of this group, 41% said they were struggling to remain in the middle class, 52% comfortable in it and 6% moving beyond it.
So how are Americans coping with the pain? In a Harris Interactive online poll, 63% said they were purchasing more generic brands to save money, 45% brown-bagging their lunches, 39% going to the hairdresser or barber less often, 34% switching to refillable water bottles instead of purchasing bottled water and 33% canceling one or more subscriptions. Around two in 10 said they had canceled or cut back cable TV services and another 20% said they have considered doing so.
Some are taking more drastic action. Twenty percent told Fox News/Opinion Dynamics pollsters they had taken money out of the market because of their concerns about the economy, 18% stocked up on food, bottled water or other staples, 11% bought a gun and 6% purchased gold.
This anxiety may be contributing to other interesting changes in attitudes. When the economy was strong in 2001, people were evenly divided in a Gallup poll about whether they were the type of person who "more enjoys saving money" or "more enjoys spending money." Now 62% describe themselves as savers.
Americans have always been very happy with their jobs. But today our difficult economic climate may be contributing to especially high job satisfaction. A whopping 70% told Gallup interviewers in January that their job was the "ideal job" for them. That included a solid majority, 57%, of those in households with incomes of less than $12,000 a year. In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics question, only 9% said they were fed up or tired of their jobs. By comparison, 82% said they were fed up and tired of partisan bickering in Washington, 81% the growing deficit, 57% poor customer service and 53% people having loud conversations on their cellphones.
Americans aren't optimistic about light at the end of the tunnel, telling pollsters that, despite economists' assertions, the recession won't be over any time soon. But most are coping and making changes that could pay dividends in the future.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.