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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Public Opinion on Civil Rights 50 Years After the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Four of the five living U.S. presidents -- Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter -- are in Austin, Texas, this week commemorating the 50 year anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.  They are in Austin because of the major role of President Lyndon Johnson in pushing the legislation through in the first months of his presidential administration in 1964. This legislation is still marked as one of the most significant developments in our nation's long history of race relations.

Herewith are eight important points about public opinion and civil rights based on a review of data and analyses from Gallup's archives. 

1. Contemporaneous reaction of the American public as a whole to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was positive. Gallup editors conducted a review a few years ago and reminded us that a majority of Americans had positive attitudes about the new civil rights legislation both prior to and after its passage in 1964. Most relevantly, in two Gallup polls taken in the fall of 1964, clear majorities of 58% and 59% of Americans responded positively when asked this question: “As you know, a civil rights law was recently passed by Congress and signed by the president. In general, do you approve or disapprove of this law?” 

2. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was assessed by Americans as the fifth-most important event of the entire 20th century. This was based on an elaborate research program we conducted late in 1999 (just as the century was coming to a close), with the objective of measuring Americans' views on news events of the past 100 years. The research consisted of open-ended questions probing what Americans thought was important off the top of their heads, followed by asking Americans to rate a list of the top 18 items uncovered by this procedure. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was rated lower in importance than only five events: World War II, women gaining the right to vote in 1920, dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. The passage of the Civil Rights Act was rated as more important than such events of the last century as World War I, landing a man on the moon, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

3. A majority of Americans continue to believe that a solution to the race problem in this country will eventually be worked out, although blacks are somewhat less optimistic than whites. This conclusion is based on repeated asking of a question first asked about 50 years ago by the National Opinion Research Corporation (NORC): “Do you think that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States, or that a solution will eventually be worked out?”  NORC found that 55% of those interviewed said that a solution would eventually be worked out. Gallup has updated that question in the years since. Attitudes have changed significantly over time, first in a more negative direction, including in particular a starkly negative poll conducted in 1995 after the O.J. Simpson verdict. After that, attitudes have become more positive. As of last summer, 58% of Americans said that a solution to relations between blacks and whites will eventually be worked out, while 40% said that it will always be a problem. 

Blacks are less positive than whites that a solution to the race problem will be worked out. Last summer blacks were 10 percentage points less positive -- with 49% of blacks saying that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem, compared with 39% of whites.  

4. A majority of blacks living in the U.S. continue to say that new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks. This percentage has changed over the years since 1993 when Gallup first asked the question, but a majority of blacks have always said that they believe new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks. In 1993 we found that 70% of blacks said “yes” -- that new civil rights laws were needed. That number was at 53% early last summer in Gallup’s Minority Rights Poll before climbing last August in a survey conducted about a month after George Zimmerman was acquitted on all counts in the death of Trayvon Martin.

U.S. whites don’t agree on the necessity of passing new laws. In a pre-Zimmerman poll conducted last year, in which 53% of blacks said that new laws were necessary, only 17% of whites agreed. The views of Hispanics were closer to those of blacks, with 46% saying that new laws were necessary.  

5. Most blacks agree that civil rights for blacks have improved over their lifetimes. Last summer, in two separate surveys, 25% to 29% of blacks said that civil rights for blacks had “greatly” improved and 52% to 53% said they had somewhat improved over their lifetimes. That left just 7% to 9% who said that civil rights for blacks had worsened over their lifetimes. Whites were significantly more positive in their views of the state of civil rights for blacks.

6. A majority of blacks feel that the government should play a “major” role in trying to improve the social and economic position of blacks and other minority groups in this country.  The exact percentage who feel this way has varied some over the years, but has always been a majority, rising to 63% last August after the Zimmerman verdict. Whites are much less likely to agree that the government should play a major role.

7. A majority of blacks in the U.S. perceive that economic racial inequality is due to "something else" and not mostly due to discrimination. Gallup first asked the question on which this conclusion is based in 1993: “On the average, blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than whites. Do you think this is mostly due to discrimination against blacks, or is it mostly due to something else?” The percentage of blacks who say “mostly something else” has gone from 48% then to to 60% early last summer. Whites have significantly stronger views on this issue, with 83% saying that racial economic inequality in the U.S. today is due to “something else” and not mostly due to discrimination. Interestingly, younger black Americans are less likely to view racial inequality as the result of discrimination than older blacks, particularly blacks 55 years of age and older.  

8. At this juncture in history, blacks are significantly more satisfied with the way things are going in the United States than whites. This question doesn't deal with race or civil rights per se, but is a broad indicator of overall views of the direction the country is taking. In a combined sample of the last two monthly Gallup Poll Social Series surveys conducted in March and April of this year, 43% of blacks said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the United States, compared with 20% of whites. This is almost certainly an “Obama” effect. In March 2008, in the last year of the Bush administration, blacks were less satisfied than whites. This reflects in large part the heavily Democratic partisan identification of blacks in this country, since Democrats in general are more satisfied with the way things are going with a fellow Democrat in the White House. But blacks are about three points more satisfied than Democrats on the whole at this point.    

Conclusion. Some fifty years after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, a majority of blacks in the U.S. perceive that additional civil rights legislation is needed, and that the government should take a significant role in improving the social and economic position of blacks. At the same time, blacks perceive that there has been significant progress in civil rights in their lifetimes. There is a racial divide in these views, with whites in general less likely to say that new legislation is needed.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Interesting Month of March

March is over, and the month had several interesting and significant events from the perspective of American public opinion.

March represented the final month in the open enrollment for health insurance using the exchanges created by the ACA (with the exception that those who claim to have initiated their enrollment before the end of the month and who are thus allowed to continue to finalize their enrollment up until April 15). We just published our estimate of the percentage of the U.S. adult population that does not have health insurance. It shows fairly conclusively that the uninsured percentage continued to drop in March, particularly in the second half of the month. I’m always cautious about interpreting the causality behind these changes, since the numbers have shown some variability over time in the six years we have monitored them on a daily basis. But the trend this year so far looks to be continuously down. We assume this reflects the increased health insurance enrollment due to the ACA. Certainly in that sense the legislation has worked as it was intended to -- although over 14% of U.S. adults still don't have health insurance (based on our figures), meaning that it's a long way to go until the country reaches universal coverage status.

America's workers -- over 17,000 of them whom we interviewed in March -- looked around their workplaces and reported back a little more positive news about hiring in March. Overall, 38% of all workers said that their place of work was hiring, while 15% said their place of employment was letting people go. This is, by a slight margin, the best read we have had on this measure since 2008. At its worst in early 2009, 27% said that their place of employment was firing people and only 23% said that it was hiring.  That’s a -4 point index value, compared with today’s +23. 

We didn’t see a concomitant increase in economic confidence in March. Attitudes about the economy were pretty flat. Certainly economic confidence is back up after reaching a near-term nadir in October after the government shutdown, but it’s not as good as earlier last year.

The month included our release of data from our annual March Environment Gallup Poll Social Series update. One of the key findings is the lack of concern that Americans have about global warming. I wrote here about some of the reasons why Americans may not be as concerned about this issue as, for example, the recent United Nations report on climate change would indicate that they should be. Although there has been fluctuation over the years, worry about global warming is no higher now than it was in 1989 when we first asked the question. Both "global warming" and "climate change" are dead last on Americans' list of worries about environmental concerns.

Finally, President Obama ended March with a monthly approval average of 43%. The average for all presidents Gallup has tracked is about 53%, so Obama is clearly below average at this juncture. Several presidents -- Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush -- had individual ratings in the 20% range, so Obama is clearly not in the depths to which other presidents have descended. I would say that he's holding on to a modestly below average approval rating.

Obama’s worst monthly averages so far have been 41%, registered in August, September, and October, 2011, and again over the three-month period of November through January just past. He has received individual approval ratings in the high 30% range, but no monthly average below 41%.  

Where does President Obama's March standing put him compared with other presidents at this point in their presidencies? Well, there have been only five previous presidents who made it to the sixth year of their presidency after their initial election and for whom we have job approval ratings -- Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. (Unfortunately, we have no polling to measure the approval ratings of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Grant, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt in March of their sixth years as president.)

As noted, Obama for the month of March had a job approval rating of 43%. That puts him ahead of two presidents in March of their sixth year: Richard Nixon, who was at 26% in March of 1974, and George W. Bush, who was at 37% in March of his sixth year (2006). 

Nixon was, of course, on his last legs in March 1974, just about five months away from resigning as he faced impeachment over his involvement in initiating and covering up the Watergate incidents. Bush was suffering mightily from perceptions that the Iraq war was going poorly in March of 2006.

At the same time, Obama is well behind Bill Clinton, whose job approval ratings were at 65% in March of 1998; Ronald Reagan, who was at 63% in March of 1986; and Dwight Eisenhower, who was at 50% in March, 1958. 

So, using this measure, Obama is below average for March of his sixth year ratings compared with the handful of recent presidents who also served into their sixth year after having been elected to their first term initially.  

Most presidents hold out the conceit that their contemporary or current job approval  ratings don’t matter, as “only history will judge” how well they do as president. That’s a good way to reduce cognitive dissonance, but not necessarily a good way to measure the job they are doing. The way in which citizens contemporaneously judge a president is an important indicator of how that president is doing his job -- regardless of what history ultimately says. One of the requirements of a president is to serve as a leader and inspiration for the people of the nation while he is in office, not just to play for the history books. 

It will be interesting to see if the perceived success of the Affordable Care enrollment through the exchanges gives the president a boost in his approval ratings in the weeks ahead.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Will Americans Ever See the 1980s and Late 1990s Again?

Two periods of time in recent decades have marked a “boom” in the nation’s economic cycle. Those were the “Morning in America” Reagan years and the dot-com boom of the later Clinton years.

This is made very clear with the chart below, which comes from a January analysis. The graph tracks the percentage of people who say they are better off and worse off financially than a year ago.

The trend line certainly shows the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times I mentioned above. The worst of times came in the early Reagan years, the latter George H.W. Bush years and early Clinton years, the early George W. Bush years, and from 2008 on, during and after the Great Recession. Of course, this particular trend only began in 1977. We don’t know how Americans would have answered during the 1930s, or the 1950s, years that were, by other indicators, quite bad and quite good economically.

The last five or so years -- within the recent memory of almost everyone now reading these words -- is the really significant negative time period in recent history, with Americans heading off into the economic wilderness and recording the worst “worse off” numbers in our history of asking this question.

These views have recovered modestly, but in our latest reading the measure remains in net negative territory.

This chart below trends a broader measure of Americans’ ratings of the U.S. economy -- a question asking Americans to rate the current economy. The measure only goes back to 1992, but graphically illustrates the positive sentiments that prevailed during the dot-com boom, and the bottom dropping out of consumer confidence, per this measure, after 2008.


Recovery? Again, perceptions of the current economy are up some from the nadir in early 2009 and the near-nadir in 2011, but are nowhere near where they were during 2001 through 2007. The ratings are, of course, far behind the positive assessments that prevailed during the last part of the 1990s and into 2000.

So it’s clear that, while we are not in the absolute worst of times, we are clearly not in the best of times either, from the perspective of the average American. The landmark-positive time period of recent decades came in the late 1990s, when all of our economic indicators were at their high points. The landmark-negative time period of recent decades is the one we are still now climbing out of.

Check out our most important problem indicator, where more than half of all Americans mention, top-of-mind, an economic issue. Check out our list of worries -- economic concerns are at the top. Check out of list of priorities for Congress and president. The economy is at the top.

The economy is not everything to everyone of course, but there is no gainsaying the fact that on a Maslowian list of hierarchical needs, being able to eat, have a place to sleep out of the elements, buy clothes, to pay for healthcare and to have transportation are fundamental keys. All of which require money. I think one of the reasons why people are not as concerned or worried about global warming, for example, is that it seems much further away than their short-term economic considerations.

The real question, of course, is what can be done about the economy? There is no easy answer. Each side of the political divide has opinions -- for the most part strongly held -- on the issue. Both Obama and the Republicans have detailed plans on what to do about the economy, but most of them are so far just that -- plans -- and the public has yet to see the proof in the pudding (that is, something actually being done). The data make it clear, however, that Americans want their government to put action on this issue on the front, front burner.

Would you be able to make a major purchase right now, such as a car, appliance, or furniture, or pay for a significant home repair if you needed to? We ask Americans that question every night, and I’ll be reporting on some interesting insights we gained from it in this space within the next several days. The results show the perilous lives led by many Americans today.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Why Are Americans Not More Worried About Climate Change?

One of the most interesting, and to many most important, public opinion puzzles of our time is the evidence that the American public simply does not share a sense of urgency or a perception of the need for urgent action on the issue of climate change.

The data on this are pretty clear, at least at the surface level. Our recent report on how worried Americans are about a list of 15 issues shows that the quality of the environment and climate change were only one away from the bottom of the list. Almost no one mentions the environment or climate change in response to our question asking them to name the most important problem facing the country. Our continuing surveys show that Americans rate global warming as the least worrisome of a list of environmental problems (pollution of drinking water is at the top of the list). Other research organizations and surveys show the same low priority for global warming when it comes to what the government should be focusing on.

This is puzzling to many people who believe that global warming is one of the most important issues facing humankind. Over two dozen U.S. senators spent March 11 in the U.S. Senate Chamber in a “talkathon” designed to call attention to climate change and to urge Congress to pass more legislation dealing with the issue. As The New York Times reported: “Climate caucus members say their objective is to raise the urgency of global warming and build toward a time when the political landscape may have shifted enough that a bill could pass.” Former Vice President Al Gore has devoted a good deal of his recent public life focusing on what he considers to be the looming disaster that will result if nothing is done about global warming, calling it the “greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.” Others say that climate change “...may be one of the greatest threats facing the planet.” The U.N. Secretary General has called it “the major, overriding environmental issue of our time, and the single greatest challenge facing environmental regulators. It is a growing crisis with economic, health and safety, food production, security, and other dimensions.”

So, why do Americans basically not think of climate change when they are asked to discuss problems facing the country? Why do they say they don’t worry about climate change when asked about it specifically, and why do they rank it as a low priority for their elected representatives? That’s the fascinating question. We’re not talking directly here about the so-called “deniers,” but rather people who may even well agree that global warming is taking place, but who simply don’t put a high priority on doing something about it, or actively worry about it. Certainly we don't see Americans giving climate change the type of priority it should have according to Al Gore and many others who are convinced that this is the most significant issue facing the planet.

A lot has been written about this, but it’s worth reviewing some of the possible reasons why the public -- taken as a whole -- appears to be so blasé. 

1. The crisis is not right at hand and isn't affecting people directly. Issues like polluted drinking water affect people much more directly than the possible future implications of global warming. Some have responded to this by advancing the viewpoint that recent extremes in weather in all directions -- hurricanes, drought, colder weather, snow and ice -- are actually manifestations of climate change. But a recent analysis by my colleague Jeff Jones shows that even those who perceive the temperature extremes, and who perceive extreme drought conditions (mainly in the West), are more likely to attribute these weather anomalies to normal variations rather than as the result of global warming.  

2. Some may find it hard to worry about global warming in a season such as we have just gone through in which temperatures were in fact colder than usual. If it's global warming, why are things getting colder?

3. The fact that the potential dangers of global warming are postulated by scientists and others but not directly observable could put this in the realm of a more belief- or faith-based issue, on which one has to accept the received wisdom of others rather than rely on one's own senses. Hence, Americans look to their “faith leaders” in these things, or in other words, political commentators, pundits, and political leaders. As a result, climate change has become a political issue, with a divergence in the attitudes of conservatives and Republicans from liberals and Democrats over the last decade or so. In other words, a sizable segment of the population as defined by political criteria is less likely to rate climate change as a priority, meaning that mathematically the population as a whole is less likely to show concern. Why this political polarization on climate change has occurred is a complex question, of course (as is the explanation for why many issues or causes become politicized). One logical explanation focuses on the fact that attempts to take action on climate change most often involve major big government actions and programs, which are not highly favored by those to the right of the political spectrum. Other explanations focus on the fact that the leading proponents of the urgency of climate change as a problem tend to be Democrats, including most prominently former Democratic vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Perhaps Republicans simply find it difficult to buy into a cause that has so much liberal and Democratic support. And, for whatever reason, the issue became one which was publicly viewed negatively by conservative media figures and conservative media channels, and thus that position became more likely to be adopted by those who listen and watch those channels.

4. There is a cluster of explanations focusing on the lack of perceived personal efficacy on this issue. Americans may assume there is nothing to be done about global warming (even if they think it is real and will result in the end of civilization as we know it), so why worry about it? Or, some have argued that Americans may find it too depressing to think about the end of humankind as we know it, and therefore they reduce cognitive dissonance by driving the thought of global warming out of their minds.  

5. Americans may believe that if other problems aren’t fixed first (economy, jobs, dysfunctional government) the effects of global warming won’t matter. In other words, Americans prioritize these short-term problems because if they don’t have a job, don’t have food to put on the table, or become homeless, they just won’t care as much if there are major changes in the climate that might affect them.

6. Americans may perceive that they won’t personally be affected by climate change, even if its effects do begin to accelerate. One big scare comes from those who say that a rising ocean level will inundate those living on the coast. NOAA estimates, in fact, that 39% of Americans live in a county that is on an ocean shoreline. In and of itself that leaves the majority of Americans who don’t live on the shoreline and therefore wouldn’t be directly affected by rising ocean levels that some predict will be one result of global warming. Plus, many who do live in shore counties may not be low lying enough that they feel they would be affected by rising waters. Los Angeles County is on the ocean, for example, but some residents of that county live in Palmdale, which is inland and over the mountains in the desert, while other residents of Los Angeles County live up in hills and mountains, which would not be subsumed by rising ocean levels. 

7. From a different perspective, it may be that many Americans who are older believe that the major effects of global warming will occur after they have left this mortal coil, so why worry about it now?

8. Americans have seen other prophecies of doom come and go, and the species is still standing. One of the most interesting of these was the fear engendered by the “population bomb” in the 1960s. Paul Ehrlich, among others, gave dire warnings that there would be widespread famine by the 1970s and many in Great Britain starving to death by 2000. Before Ehrlich, many other big thinkers talked about how quickly the population would overcome the earth’s ability to feed it, with disastrous outcomes -- none of which have yet come to fruition. Many remember the hypotheses that the world’s computers would cease to function at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, because they were not programmed to handle a new century in their internal clocks. That, too, didn't happen.

9. It’s possible that public opinion researchers are not picking up concern about global warming because we aren't asking the right questions. This has been argued off and on over the years.  It is true that wording questions in certain ways can result in higher levels of expressed concern, but it is difficult to argue, no matter how opinion is measured, that Americans are anywhere near as worried about climate change as are those who are sounding the alarm think they should be.

Whatever the reasons, those who argue climate change is the top problem of our age are no doubt aghast that even now, in 2014, Americans are not more worried or concerned than they are. A lot of the efforts to raise concern levels and awareness to date have obviously not worked well. It may be that new tactics are needed. So far, however, even if it is a case of whistling past the graveyard, Americans are clearly more focused on other issues.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Age Factor in Views of Russia: Memories of the Cold War?

Americans’ overall opinion of Russia is quite negative. The current 34% favorable, 60% unfavorable split in views is about as negative as Gallup has recorded over the past two decades, and those data were obtained in early February, before the recent crisis with Russian military involvement in the Crimean region of Ukraine.

What’s interesting is how much of a difference age makes in those perceptions. Those who are old enough to remember the Cold War, ages 50 and older, are much more negative about Russia than those who are younger. In fact, among the 50+ crowd, unfavorable opinions outweigh favorable by over a 2-to-1 ratio. Among those 30-49 years, the negative ratio is somewhat smaller. And, among those aged 18-29 -- the eldest of whom were only about five-years-old when the Soviet Union collapsed -- favorable opinions actually edge out unfavorable opinions by a two-percentage-point margin. 


That’s a pretty large age swing, as these things go. Stop a senior citizen on the street and he or she is highly probable to view Russia in a negative light. Stop a young millennial on the street and he or she is just as likely to be positive as negative.

However, we don’t see this age difference translate over into concern about the military power of Russia as a threat. We included the military power of Russia in a list of possible threats in our February Gallup World Affairs survey and asked Americans to say whether each was a critical threat to the interests of the U.S., an important but not critical threat, or not a threat at all. 

Older Americans are slightly more likely than those who are younger to see the military power of Russia as a threat, but just marginally so. The big 19-point spread in the favorable rating of Russia between those aged 18-29 years and those 65 years and older is reduced to only a six-point spread in terms of viewing the military power of Russia as a threat.



In fact, there are not huge age differences in Americans' perceptions of most of the situations as critical threats to the U.S. There is one major exception. The biggest age difference, by far, in this view of potential critical threats to the U.S. comes in terms of “Islamic fundamentalism,” in which seniors are 42 points more likely to view this as a critical threat than are those aged 18-29. Seniors are also 14 points more likely to view the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians a potential critical threat to the United States. But again, the age spread in views of the military power of Russia as a threat is much smaller.

In our just completed March Gallup Poll Social Series survey, we asked Americans how worried they were that “the current situation in Ukraine will develop into a larger regional conflict that could lead to the U.S. military getting involved.” This question followed an introduction that mentioned “Russia’s involvement in Ukraine,” so respondents were clearly focused on Russia in answering the Ukraine question. The data show that Americans 65 years and older were about eight points more likely to say that they were worried than were those aged 18-29. (We'll have more to say about these results on Gallup.com in the next day or two.)

So, in general, we find some mixed evidence on the legacy of the Cold War for those old enough to remember it. Perhaps because they remember that no direct armed conflict  between the U.S. and Russia ever arose out of the Cold War, older Americans are not more likely to be worried about Russian involvement in Ukraine than those who are younger. But, in terms of the image of Russia as a country, the age differences are quite large. Older Americans’ memories are apparently quite vivid when they think back to the days of Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, et al., and they manifest those memories in a much more negative view of Russia as a country than do those who are younger. 

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