I had a hunch that following the Great Recession, deregulation and globalization, Americans would feel a generalized sense of economic insecurity. I scraped a few dollars together and had a highly respected pollster, Anna Greenberg, check my hunch. We found that the majority of Americans – both Democrats and Republicans – indeed experience a sort of economic anxiety. This is true for 5 of the 6 facets of their lives we asked about.
Americans are most concerned Social Security will not be there when they retire and that they will not have enough money to retire.
For now, the majority feels it may not have enough money to pay the bills or that they may lose their jobs. A majority also is concerned it will be unable to afford health insurance. (This may at first seem counter-intuitive, given the enactment of the Affordable Care act; note that the ACA sets no ceiling on how much insurance companies can charge.)
Of somewhat less concern, but still very much on the mind of half of all Americans, is the risk they will lose their homes. The only question that scored less than 5 out of 10 on the worry scale was whether they will have the same job in 10 years.
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Unlike the many issues about which Democrats, Republicans and independents respond differently, economic anxiety seems to afflict the majority of all three groups: the mean score is 6.7 for Democrats, 6.6 for independents and 6.4 for Republicans.
Compare this to inequality: While majorities of all three groups agree that inequality is increasing, a 2014 poll found 90 percent of Democrats favor government action to reduce inequality, compared to 69 percent of independents and 45 percent of Republicans. Moreover, to reduce poverty, a majority of Democrats favored higher taxes and expanded programs for the poor, while a majority of Republicans favored lower taxes to encourage investment and growth, believing aid “does more harm than good.”
There were some differences among our respondents. We found younger people are somewhat less troubled than older ones, and that the most troubled group is those who are near retirement age, 50 to 56. Those with less education are much more worried than college graduates. And those with lower income are naturally more worried than those with high income.
The American sensibilities concerning economic insecurity are very different from those that concern inequality and economic stagnation. Inequality concerns are based on a sense of fairness. Thus reports that women working on Wall Street and doing the same work as men but are paid much less seem unfair even if they make six figures and they have no reason to be economically insecure.
People troubled that their wages have not increased for years and hence can buy less each year, may still have a secure salary. However, those anxious worry daily if they will still have a roof over their head the next day, a source of income, a job and the ability to retire. The issue here is more one of anxiety than alienation or disaffection. So far, no party has zeroed in on this issue and suggested a new or reinforced safety net to allay these fears.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor at The George Washington University and author of many books, including “The New Normal: Finding a Balance between Individual Rights and the Common Good.” He wrote this for CQ-Roll Call.