The jobs report: Being better off, feeling better off

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  • Polls show pessimistic public opinion when it comes to economic improvement @AEIPol

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  • The 2008 crash had a devastating psychological effect on public opinion @AEIPol

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  • Polls show it will be some time before Americans feel better off about the economy @AEIPol

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Americans are lagging indicators when it comes to economic improvement, slow to see positive news and often worried that there will be backsliding. Today’s disappointing jobs report, with fewer jobs gained than expected, will underscore the pessimism in the polls.

The public’s “wait and see” mindset has been especially strong since the 2008 financial crash. The crash and its aftermath had a devastating psychological effect on public opinion. Four in ten Americans said they were afraid. Fear is not an emotion we see often in polls. Many worried about the economy sinking into a long-term depression. In February 2009, 94 percent said the condition of the economy was bad. We don’t see sky-high responses like this often in polls, and it takes a long time for those emotions to temper, let alone recover. We’re not convinced yet that the economy is really recovering.

To see what Americans are thinking now, we’ve compiled a substantial collection of polls on public opinion on the economy and on people’s attitudes toward jobs. Americans’ impressions about the economy are rooted in their experiences and those of their families and neighbors. In a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 40 percent said that someone in their household had lost a job in the past five years. In a question in a new Heldrich/Rutgers Work Trends poll, a majority, 53 percent, said job security would never again be the way it was before the recession, while 38 percent said the feeling of security would return, but not for many years. The pessimism is so deep that many Americans fear the lackluster economy will be a permanent condition going forward. Seventy-one percent in the Work Trends poll said the great recession of the past five years had left us with a “permanent change in what are normal economic conditions in the country.” Thirty percent in another question in the poll said it would take the economy 3 to 5 years to recover, 24 percent 6 to 10 years, and 36 percent said the economy would never fully recover.


These responses are real and deep. But viewed in isolation they would not present a true picture of public opinion. There are also signs of improvement. Eighty-five percent in 2010 said jobs were difficult to find where they lived. A still substantial, but much reduced, 58 percent gave that response in a Pew poll out this week. A third of employed people in a 2009 Gallup battery worried that their wages would be reduced. That figure was 24 percent in their August 2014 poll. Three in ten worried that they would be laid off in 2009. Nineteen percent of employed people gave that response in the new poll. Forty-six percent worried their benefits would be reduced; today, 34 percent of employed people gave that response.

Even if Americans feel a little less worried about their own job security, they aren’t confident about how their fellow Americans are faring or about the long-term health of the economy. Americans seem less resilient than in the past Pew titled a new report “Views of the Job Market Tick Up, No Rise in Economic Optimism.” That’s a summary with which we would agree. Concern about the unsteady state of foreign affairs no doubt adds to our anxiety. In his Labor Day address, President Obama said that “by almost every measure, the American economy and American workers are better off than when I took office.” That may be true, but it will be some time before Americans feel better off about the state of the economy.

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Jennifer K.

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