During the 2008 election and since the start of the economic crisis, I’ve spoken with dozens of journalists from around the world who all want to know one thing: what do working-class people think? It’s standard practice for journalists to ask experts to speak for the working class, and while years of studying working-class life and issues gives me a pretty clear perspective, at the Center for Working-Class Studies we also believe in going to the source.
That’s why we’ve started an online survey project aimed at finding out what people think about current issues facing the working class. Our initial survey, focused on the economy, was distributed in April. More than 900 people responded.
Results show strong support for President Obama, with approval ratings in the high 80s, despite pessimism about economy and uneasiness about the future. Working-class respondents—defined as those between the ages of 30 and 60 with annual incomes of $10,000 to $50,000 who lack college degrees—gave the President an 87% approval rating, although a slightly smaller number, 46%, strongly approve of his performance. Seventy four percent of this group believes the country is moving in the right direction.
Those positive numbers contrast with the 94% of working-class respondents who said the economy is bad or very bad. They are also pessimistic about the prospects for a speedy recovery. More than 78% said they believe the recession will last one year or more with more than 46% saying it will last for two years or longer. Only six percent say they see light at the end of the economic tunnel this year.
The dichotomy between respondents’ view of the President’s performance and their concerns about the economy is underscored by their uncertainty about whether the administration’s stimulus plan will be effective. While 42% said they are confident the stimulus proposals will work, 44% said they are only somewhat confident, and 14% said they are not confident at all. Working-class respondents were slightly more optimistic with 48% expressing confidence in the President’s plan, 38% saying they were somewhat confident, and 13% saying they were not
confident at all that the stimulus package would turn the economy around.
The contrast between people’s optimism about the president and their pessimism about the state of the economy and its future can be explained by a number of factors. First, the President is clearly in a honeymoon period. The people who voted for him, and that includes 85% of the respondents who revealed their choice when asked, are confident he can lead the nation out of the economic morass he inherited. To a lesser extent, they probably don’t want to admit that they may have made a mistake last November, so they are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, no one can ignore the economy, and for the working class, the bankruptcy declarations of two major American automakers feels especially significant. The value of existing homes continues to erode, jobs are hard to find, gas prices are rising, the stock market’s falling, and despite all the talk about stimulus the economy appears to be stuck in neutral at best. So while people remain hopeful that the President’s plan will work, it’s not at all surprising that they’re also very worried about the future.
That uncertainty about the future is underscored by the survey data: only 35% of all respondents believed their children’s standard of living would be somewhat or much better than theirs, while 41% believed it would be somewhat or much worse, and 24% believed it would be the same. At the same time, the working class appears to be considerably more optimistic overall: 48% of working-class respondents believe their children will do better, 42% believe they will do worse and seven percent believe their children’s standard of living will be about the same as theirs. I’m not sure how to explain that optimism, especially given the decline of the auto industry.
The CWCS survey also revealed that respondents approve of the President’s plans to bail out the troubled domestic automobile industry by a margin of 75% to 21%. This clearly demonstrates that the President’s supporters want the government to take the steps necessary
to help GM survive. A number of Republicans and conservative pundits believe that GM may become President Obama’s Iraq. They predict that Obama’s popularity will begin to slip when the American people grow weary of throwing money at a hopeless cause, just as President Bush was dragged down by the war. But our survey shows that an overwhelming majority are willing to give him the time needed to save GM and the tens of thousands of jobs it provides in Ohio and across the country.
How long will that patience last? Will the continuing recession and rising unemployment generate more activism and anger among the working class? Stay tuned.
The CWCS will issue a second survey later this summer. To participate, visit our website, or contact me to join the survey mailing list.