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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Missouri Residents Are 49th Out of 50 States When Asked to Rate Climate for Racial and Ethnic Minorities

Gallup’s major 50-state poll conducted in 2013 included a question asking residents of each state to rate the city or area where they live as “a good place to live for racial or ethnic minorities.” My colleague Lydia Saad analyzed the resulting data in some detail a few months ago, pointing out that residents of all states in the union were, in general, positive about the climate in their area for racial minorities, but highlighting the significant differences across states. Hawaii’s residents were the most positive, with 95% of residents of Hawaii rating their area as a good place for race and ethnic minorities, followed by 92% of residents of Texas and 91% of residents of Alaska. The 50-state average on this measure is 83%. (The list, along with the minority population of each state, is available below.)

At the bottom of the list was West Virginia, where 74% of residents rated their city or area as a good place for racial and ethnic minorities to live. That’s still positive on an absolute basis, of course, but on a relative basis a full 21 percentage points lower than the rating given by residents in Hawaii.

Importantly, residents of Missouri were 49th out of 50 states on this racial climate measure. Overall, 76% of Missouri residents said that their area was a good place for racial and ethnic minorities, while 22% said it was not. As noted, the only state lower on this measure was West Virginia.

Obviously, all of this is relative. Even at the bottom of the list, about three-quarters of residents of West Virginia and Missouri were positive about the climate for minorities in their area. Still, Missouri residents were next-to-last on the list.

The question is how germane this is to the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri, the town in which 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot to death by a white policeman. There have been protests and riots and violence in Ferguson in the days and weeks following the shooting.

Ferguson has a population of about 21,000 people, a fraction of Missouri’s overall population of 6 million -- giving Ferguson about one-third of one percent of the state’s population. But Ferguson is part of the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is by far the biggest region of the state, comprising just under half of the state’s population. So when a relatively low percentage of residents across the entire state interviewed in our poll say that the area or city where they live is a good place to live for racial minorities, a lot of those residents are talking about the St. Louis area. 

As noted, we can’t break out data on Ferguson per se. So we don’t know how residents of that town would answer the questions about their area being a good place to live for racial minorities. But the fact that, across the state, residents of Missouri are so low on that measure (on a relative basis) gives us pause.  It raises the possibility that the strong and sometimes violent reaction to the shooting in Ferguson may, to some degree, be symptomatic of a race situation in the region that has more negative components to it that the situation across the country.  

Lydia Saad’s analysis showed that the relationship between the racial composition of a state and its residents’ ratings of the racial climate is by no means straightforward. The relationship does appear to be quite clear in Hawaii, which has only 23% white residents -- with Asians being by far the highest race segment. But having high percentages of black residents doesn’t in and of itself lead to either negative or positive views of the place being good for minorities. Delaware has 21% black residents, well above the national average, and is in the top 10 states in terms of their residents saying it is a good place for minorities to live. Maryland, Virginia, and Alabama also have black populations that are way above the national average (on a percentage basis), and are in the top 12 states in terms of residents saying their area is good place for minorities to live. On the other hand, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana also have above average black percentages (Mississippi has the highest percentage black population in the nation), yet their state ratings on having a good climate for racial and ethnic minorities are near the bottom. 

As a state, Missouri has 11% black residents, roughly at the national average. Ferguson, of course, is a distinct and tiny part of Missouri. It's population consists of about two-thirds black residents. But extrapolating from the 50-state data, Ferguson's having a large black population doesn’t in and of itself suggest a necessarily negative environment for minorities.

So, what we know is that Ferguson is part of a state whose residents are quite negative when asked if their cities and areas are good places for minorities to live. The extent to which this relatively negative climate is a factor in the reaction to the Ferguson situation is not quantifiable. Ferguson has a distinct and idiosyncratic history, with a rapid turnover from a predominantly white to predominantly black suburb in recent decades, and a police force whose racial composition does not mirror that of the city's population. Still, the fact that Ferguson is in a state whose residents perceive a relatively less positive climate for minorities is certainly of note.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Congress Correctly Addresses the Public's Priorities With Veterans' Bill

Congress this week did something which is fairly unusual these days -- it passed legislation that is directly in line with the public's assessment of priorities. The House and the Senate passed a bill that will direct more than $16 billion into the Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare system, and sent the bill over to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it into law. 

This fits squarely with data from a June Gallup poll showing that 87% of Americans rated "improving the way healthcare services are provided to U.S. military veterans" as extremely or very important for the president and Congress to deal with, significantly higher than any of the other issues tested.

Now, new data from the Kaiser Family Foundation also shows that improvements in veterans' healthcare is the single most important issue they tested. These results come from Kaiser's monthly tracking poll for July, whose main focus is to keep tabs on Americans' attitudes toward health-related issues, including the Affordable Care Act. In fact, the July survey shows that unfavorable attitudes toward the ACA as measured by Kaiser are at the highest levels in their four-year history of tracking it (53%), while Americans' favorable attitudes (37%) have dropped, although not to their all-time low. The percentage of Americans who don’t have an opinion about the ACA, on the other hand, is at an all-time low.

But more importantly for my purposes here, Kaiser within the poll asked respondents to assess 11 different issues and to say whether “the president and Congress are paying too much attention, too little attention, or about the right amount of attention to each.” Here we find that Americans say “too little” to six issues, in this order: healthcare for veterans, the economy and jobs, the federal budget deficit, education, Social Security, and immigration. 

Thus, two separate assessments in recent months confirm the high priority Americans give to the way in which their government deals with veterans. Keep in mind that the military is the single institution with the highest confidence level of any national institution we test at Gallup, and this priority no doubt reflects the respect and admiration the people have in the men and women who don uniforms and go forth to help protect the nation from external threats.

One issue not tested by Kaiser on their list, nor on our June Gallup list, is dysfunctional government, something which comes up very high in other Gallup measures. In our July update on Americans' views of the most important problem facing the nation, for example, problems with the way government functions was essentially tied with immigration and economic issues at the top of the list. 

That's important because this reflects one of the most significant issues of our time -- the very low regard in which Americans hold their federal government and Congress. Our testing indicates that one of the primary reasons why Americans are so down on their elected representatives is that they bicker, pay attention only to narrow partisan concerns, argue, refuse to cooperate, and don't get anything done. The passage of the veterans' bill, on the other hand, represents a [rare] instance in which both sides agreed, and within a relatively short period of time came up with a bill that passed through both houses of Congress. (They also passed a transportation bill, not included on either Gallup's or Kaiser's lists in the measures I've reviewed here.) If Congress can do more of this, then there's a possibility that we may see their approval and confidence levels begin to rise out of the depths to which they have been consigned in recent years.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Smoking and Drinking in America Today

Gallup’s annual Consumption poll, conducted in July of each year, provides fascinating updates on Americans' smoking and drinking habits as well as both smokers’ and non-smokers’ attitudes toward these two activities. We have been presenting the results on in recent days, and will be presenting more results going forward. Meanwhile, here are nine insights into the American public's relationships with smoking and drinking that I think are particularly interesting.

1. There is not as much correlation between smoking and drinking as you might have imaged. About 20% of American adults smoke, and 64% have occasion to use alcoholic beverages. But the percentage of drinkers among smokers is just 70%, not that much higher than the national average. Looked at the other way, about 23% of those who drink smoke cigarettes -- again, not that much different than the national average. These results suggest that these two habits are relatively orthogonal to one another; that is, the social and psychological forces at play that lead Americans to smoke and to drink are relatively independent of one another.

2. Drinkers are most likely to drink alcohol on the weekend, particularly Saturday, and least likely to drink on Monday. This may not come as a great shock to those who assume weekend is the time for recreation, pleasure, and revelry, but the data confirm that many drinkers use alcohol on an occasional basis rather than as a daily, habituated behavior. 

We derived these estimates from an analysis conducted by my colleague Lydia Saad of over 10,000 interviews conducted over the past decade or so in which drinkers were asked when they had last had a drink of alcohol. The percent who say “within the last 24 hours” rises to its peak in interviews conducted on Sunday, suggesting that Saturday is the big drinking day. The numbers are also high on interviews conducted on Friday, and lowest on interviews conducted on Tuesday, suggesting that Monday is the driest day of the week.

3. Americans are more likely to say it’s OK to charge smokers more for health insurance than it is to refuse to hire smokers because they smoke. The precise numbers are 58% who say OK to charging more for health insurance and 14% say OK for refusing to hire smokers. The latter is not a totally uncommon occurrence. The famous Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s best hospital and medical complexes, will not hire smokers, a policy now in place in other hospitals around the country as well. But the average American does not agree with the policy. Americans in general are leery of employee discrimination practices. Not shockingly, smokers are even less likely to agree. The majority agreement with charging smokers more for health insurance may stem from association with the well-established practice of charging smokers more for life insurance. 

4. Along these same lines, few Americans -- 19% --  favor the idea of making smoking totally illegal in the U.S. This may stem in part from a general attitude Americans hold against banning anything totally -- including smoking, abortion, and owning guns. This, in turn, may stem from Americans’ views of how impractical it is to attempt to ban things, as witnessed by the attempt at prohibition from 1920 to 1933, and the thriving businesses that operate in America today in and around the distribution and sale of illegal drugs. 

5. Mormons and Jews in America today share at least one thing in common -- they have the lowest smoking rates of any religious groups in the U.S. The highest smoking rates are among Americans who have no religious identity (“nones"), among those who identify with a non-Christian religion other than Judaism or Islam, and among Muslims. Religiosity per se is also related to smoking: 11% of those who are very religious smoke, compared with 27% of those who are unreligious (based on Jan.-June, 2014 data).  

6. Wine is clearly the adult beverage of choice for highly educated Americans. There are very few drinkers whose favorite beverage is wine among those with high school educations or less (15%). On the other hand, a robust 49% of Americans with postgraduate educations prefer wine. Wine is also decidedly the beverage of choice among women, and older Americans -- and those living in the East. Republicans are modestly more likely to prefer wine than Democrats.   

7. Smoking follows the exact opposite pattern. Smoking is just as downscale as wine preference is upscale. Only 6% of Americans with postgraduate education say that they smoke, compared with 27% of those with high school or less (based on Jan.-June 2014 data). There just aren’t a lot of Ph.D.s out there who smoke. Why is smoking so relatively rare among those with higher levels of education? One assumes that with education comes knowledge, and that with knowledge comes more recognition of the harmful effects of smoking. There may also be stronger normative controls in place that affect the behavior of those with higher levels of education, making it more socially disruptive to smoke in these settings. Those controls to some degree represent a circular effect. Less-well-educated Americans associate with other less-well-educated Americans who are more likely to smoke, making smoking more of an acceptable business and social behavior. Americans with more education tend to associate with other Americans of similar educational attainment, making smoking more of a socially and professionally opprobrious behavior.  

8. The City of Philadelphia is attempting to get the Pennsylvania state legislature to approve a new law that would add $2 to each pack of cigarettes sold in Philadelphia. The major objective of this law is to raise revenues that can be used to help save the extremely cash-starved Philadelphia public school system. But another benefit of raising taxes on cigarettes is supposed to be the negative impact on smoking rates. Of course, that is a Catch-22 in some ways. If higher taxes help to reduce smoking, the less revenue accrues from those taxes. (Plus, of course, in a city like Philadelphia surrounded by suburbs, it is easy for smokers to go over the line and buy their smokes outside the city limits.) At any rate, self-reports from smokers themselves suggest that such taxes really won’t affect their behavior as much as might be imagined. Only 26% of smokers say that increased taxes cause them to smoke less. Smokers may not recognize the degree to which higher costs might impact their behavior, of course, and a higher cost might help deter young nonsmokers from taking up the habit. Smokers, by the way, are just as likely to deny that restrictions on smoking cause them to smoke less.  

9. How do smokers react when asked by a survey interviewer to say how harmful smoking is to one’s health? This is a classic case of cognitive dissonance -- the stress that would be caused by smokers holding in their minds the cognition that they smoke along with the cognition that smoking is extremely harmful to one’s health. It appears that smokers handle this dissonance by tending to admit that smoking is harmful to their health, but downgrading the degree of that harm. The question wording gives respondents the opportunity to say that smoking is very, somewhat, not very, or not at all harmful to their health. A very high 88% of nonsmokers say that smoking is very harmful to their health, with only 9% saying it is somewhat harmful (and 2% saying it is not very or not at all harmful). By contrast, 47% of smokers say very harmful, while 41% load themselves into the “somewhat” harmful category. Only 8% of smokers go so far as to say that smoking is not very or not at all harmful. 

The choice of “somewhat” harmful is a useful cognitive ploy by smokers. It allows them to admit the obvious, that smoking is bad for one’s health, while still holding on to the hope that the health detriments are not severe (or, in other words, that the smoker will be one of the lucky ones that gets by without suffering the deleterious health consequences that affect many smokers).

Friday, July 18, 2014

What Americans Say Should Be Done to Fix Congress, in Their Own Words

One of the central crises of our day is the American public’s lack of faith in their elected representatives and government. This is not totally new. Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with their federal government and Congress. We don’t have systematic survey research telling us what Americans thought about their Congress from 1789 through the end of World War II, and we didn’t begin to collect really systematic measures until decades after that. We don’t know how Americans would have answered our questions about Congress in the 1820s or the 1930s. But based on the research that measures the public’s attitudes in recent years, faith in Congress is at an all-time low and approval of the job Congress is doing is near an all-time low.

My colleagues and I recognize that some of the explanation for the low rating of Congress, particularly job approval, relates to the fact that Congress is divided -- the House is under the control of the Republicans and the Senate is under the Democrats. This prevents either Republicans or Democrats giving the more positive ratings that would almost certainly accrue if their party controlled both houses. Following that logic, ratings of Congress will go up if one or the other party gains control of both the Senate and House after this November’s election, a state of affairs that is most likely to occur if the Republicans manage to gain control of the Senate, and of course keep their control of the House.

But even with all caveats in mind, there is no way around the fact that, at this juncture in time, Americans look with essential disdain at their elected representatives and senators and the job they are doing in our nation’s capital.  

In our most recent Gallup Poll Social Series survey, July 7-10, 15% of Americans said they approved of the job Congress is doing. We followed up and asked Americans a simple question: “What is the most important thing you would recommend be done to fix Congress?” This was an open-ended question and interviewers typed in respondents’ answers verbatim. Open-end coders went through each response and put them into broad categories. My colleague Andrew Dugan reported on and analyzed the results here.   

We've made the actual verbatim responses of the 500 or so respondents of whom we asked this “fix Congress” question available for readers to look at themselves, and to use as the basis for forming their own conclusions about just what it is the people would do to fix their governing body. 

Click on this link to read through them.

These are the actual words typed in by Gallup interviewers as the random sample of Americans across the country responded to the question, “What is the most important thing you would recommend be done to fix Congress?” Some are terse responses, such as “term limits.” Others are more expansive. But as one reads through these, one comes away with an excellent sense of the ways in which Americans think about this very pressing problem. Most Americans answered this question in a way that shows they have thought about the problem and many have clear ideas about what should be done.

One can debate the relevance of the “fire them all” responses, which formed the largest grouping of answers. Keep in mind that the question was asked in a passive voice, so the responses are based on a general focus on fixing Congress, not necessarily what Congress can do to fix itself. Of course, the vast majority of incumbents will be re-elected to office this year, as they have been in every other election. So, the idea of firing them all, or getting all new members, is not going to happen in reality.  

This paradox -- disliking the body but returning the individual members who comprise the body -- has been well discussed and well documented. But the key factor here is the fact that many Americans believe that the best fix for Congress is simply to get new people and new blood in the body. The significant percentage of Americans who mention imposing term limits is also a reflection of this same sentiment -- that changing the personnel is the best way to fix the issue.

Changing people doesn’t always fix problems with large organizations or bureaucracies, of course. Congress is, to some degree, a very large ongoing entity that operates and continues to operate with an essential will of its own -- regardless of the people who come and go inside it. As board members and stockholders of large companies realized long ago, it often takes massive and disruptive changes to a big organization to shift the way it does business, even as management comes and goes. The giant departments of government -- Labor, Energy, Health and Human Services -- continue to function without a lot of change even as the cabinet secretaries who are in theory in charge of them change every few years. Congress operates in this same fashion to a degree. Inertia tends to rule. Changes are hard. Still, many Americans apparently believe that changing representatives has a better chance of fixing Congress than any other method they can think of.  

The other suggestions from the public cover a wider range of possibilities. Many Americans argue for Congress exhibiting more bipartisan cooperation, working better together, and getting along. Others argue that representatives need to be accountable to the people who elected them, not to their own agendas. This latter is a key point. The stated or manifest objectives of any bureaucracy are constantly in danger of shifting over to unstated or latent objectives, which often center around self-preservation and power. That clearly happens in the halls of Congress.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Science of Ranking U.S. Presidents

Is Barack Obama really the worst president since World War II? The Quinnipiac Poll announced just that result recently. There were thereafter a number of pushbacks from that conclusion, most based on the fact that such an open-end question reflects a "recency bias" in that Americans think about the presidents who are most top-of-mind. Few average Americans think of Harry Truman when asked about presidents, and a sizable percentage of younger Americans don’t remember who Jimmy Carter was. Plus, since partisans overwhelmingly tend to select a president of the opposite party when asked this type of “worst” question, it may be that Republicans have an easier time picking Obama since he is so recently in office, while Democrats “split their vote” between several older Republican presidents.

From a bigger picture perspective, we know that there are certainly a number of ways to evaluate and rank presidents. Historians in particular like this type of parlor game and over the years have produced a number of greatest and worst presidents lists.

But we're interested here in views of presidents from the people’s perspective. Rather than asking Americans to retrospectively choose the best and worst presidents, I think a method using contemporaneous polling has some significant advantages. We can examine the job approval ratings earned by each of the 12 presidents who have served since World War II while they were in office, and from that create a list of the best and the worst -- as evaluated by their constituents. This equalizes any recency bias, since all ratings were obtained while the president was in the White House -- giving us an excellent focus on what people thought about them at the time they were doing their job. 

This method, too, has its issues, of course. Many argue that the “greatness” of a president may not be known for years or decades to come. Many presidents themselves like to think this is the case, since it provides them a convenient mental way out of the dissonance created by low ratings while in office. George W. Bush comes to mind here. He is able to sidestep questions about his administration by opining that only history will eventually judge how he did -- presumably after he dies. Similarly, there is a five-year waiting period before baseball players can be elected to the Hall of Fame, presumably to let the sports writers who vote have more time to contemplate just how long-lasting their contributions and achievements were. Still, even in this process, the baseball Hall of Fame voters take mostly into account how well the players did while on the field -- batting averages, wins and losses, fielding percentages, ERAs, and so forth.

So, all in all, looking at presidents' average job approval rating while they served in office provides a pretty good ranking metric. With all caveats in mind, here are the 12 U.S. presidents since World War II, rank ordered by average Gallup job approval rating while they were in office.

The first focus point is Obama himself. It’s important to keep in mind that we are comparing how Obama has done in the first five and a half years of his two-year term to the full terms of the other presidents. As I will discuss below, several presidents have seen their average ratings change significantly in the last two and a half years of their second term. Obama’s final approval rating for his entire time in office could, in fact, shift if he were to get dramatically higher ratings in the next two and a half years, for example, or if he were to get dramatically lower ratings in the next two and a half years.

But that’s an unknown, so for now, we can deal with what we have: Obama's performance as president from January 2009 through June of 2014. That average -- 48% -- puts Obama in ninth place among the 12 presidents who have served since World War II. 

Obama’s average to date is slightly ahead of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Harry Truman’s overall averages for their presidencies. Obama’s current 48% average is just a percentage point or two below George W. Bush and Richard Nixon’s. Thus, it is certainly not correct to say that Obama is the worst president since World War II. He is clearly in the bottom half of all presidents since World War II using this measure, but not the worst. That distinction belongs to Harry Truman.    

Six presidents ended their time in office in the enviable position of having had a majority of Americans on average approving of the job they did as president. This is where any president would like to be. This 50%+ job approval club has as members John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, in that order.

As noted, Obama has now served about five and a half years of the full eight years of his two terms. Seven other presidents since World War II have served second terms. Two of these were not elected to their first terms, but rather ascended to the presidency due to the death of the serving president (Truman and Johnson). One additional president -- Richard Nixon -- made it through June of his sixth year in office, but just barely. Nixon resigned just two months later, in August of 1974.

This table shows the calculation of the average job approval ratings for these seven presidents only through June of their sixth year in office, or about where Obama is today.

It is clear that things can change dramatically in the last two and a half years of a two-term president’s time in office. The biggest changes have been significant drops in approval over the course of these final years. Lyndon Johnson showed the biggest shift. His approval rating was 67% as of June 1966, but by the time he left office in January 1953, his overall average had plummeted to 55%. This large shift was, in part, due to the fact that he served only a little more than a year of his first term, and that he had extraordinarily high ratings up until the second year of his second term. From that point on, the impact of the Vietnam War began to take its toll on LBJ's performance ratings, and when he left office, Johnson’s overall average had fallen 12 points, down to 55%. 

George W. Bush and Harry Truman also saw their job approval rating averages drop significantly after June of their sixth year in office. Bush had a fairly robust 58% overall rating by June of 2006; he left office with an overall average of 49%. Bush had very high ratings in his first years in office, due to the rally effect that followed 9/11. His last years in office were not good, however, as the Iraq War and other issues began to drag his ratings down. Truman likewise was dogged by the Korean War and a bad economy in his final two and a half years, seeing his average drop from 52% in June 1950 to an overall 45% by the time he left office.

Two presidents saw modest increases in their overall averages compared with their average as of June of their sixth year in office. Bill Clinton went from 52% in June 1998 to 55% overall when he left office, buoyed by a strong economy and high ratings even as he was being impeached and tried in the Senate in his sixth and seventh years. Ronald Reagan edged up slightly from 52% in June 1986 to an overall 54% by the time left office. Reagan’s first years in office had been dogged by a very poor economy.

Dwight Eisenhower lost a very slight two percentage points between the average calculated as of June 1958 and his overall average when he left in January 1960. Richard M. Nixon’s average didn’t change between the calculation done as of June 1974 and his final average after he left office a couple of months later in August 1974.

Thus, these very limited data suggest that Obama has a better than even chance of seeing his rating go down rather than up over the next two and a half years. Looking only at two-term presidents who served a full four years of their first term, it appears that Obama’s overall presidential average could, in theory, fall by as much as nine points if he emulated the trajectory of George W. Bush, which would put Obama down as the bottom of the list. On the other hand, should he emulate Bill Clinton’s trajectory, he could edge up above the 50% mark and join six other presidents who have enjoyed majority approval ratings for their entire time in office. But the data on two-term presidents are in fact very limited, with a sample size of only seven presidents, so it’s more accurate to say that where Obama will eventually end up in the pantheon of the 12 men who have served as president since World War II remains a very open case.

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