Spotlight Exclusives

September 21, 2009: New Poll Shows Americans Stepping up to Confront the Recession, By Kevin F. Walker, President and CEO, Northwest Area Foundation

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Don۪t let the shouting fool youAmericans know that access to affordable healthcare will help as they struggle to make ends meet. A new national poll reveals that more then seven out of every ten adults (72 percent) say affordable healthcare should be the number two priority for elected officials today, second only to attracting and retaining good jobs.

For the fourth year in a row, the Northwest Area Foundation commissioned a telephone poll on “Struggling to Make Ends Meet.” Interviewers asked 4,000 men and women how they perceive that struggle within their homes and local communities, what they are doing in response, and what they expect elected officials to do.

This year, we included new questions to probe the impact of the recession. The responses reveal significant losses and sacrifice.

  • More one in four (27 percent) reported a job loss in their household, and more than one in three (38 percent) said that in the last year they saw work hours cut for someone in their household or for friends.

More than six out of ten said they cut back on expenses, ranging from food to retirement savings.More than half said they or someone in their family lent money to a friend or family member in need.Remarkably, nearly one in four said they had taken in a family member or friend because of money.

We also learned that nearly half of the respondents, 49 percent, said they do not know where to turn for help in their communities. Just over half, 51 percent, said they are not familiar with government services such as food stamps and subsidized housing. This lack of awareness has damaging consequences for people in poverty and for those who find themselves slipping out of the middle class as the downturn takes its toll.

Every year, billions of federal and state dollars are dedicated to work support programs, tax credits, and other forms of assistance designed to help low-income Americans make ends meet. And every year billions of dollars go unclaimed because people are unaware of these resources or don۪t know how to access them.

It is because of information gaps like this that the Foundation initiated the poll. We wanted to equip communities, service providers, advocacy organizations, and elected officials with data that might help in their efforts to reduce poverty. The poll was designed and administered by Lake Research Partners of Washington, D.C. This year, Lake made the survey calls from mid-June to mid-Julyin the wake of corporate bailouts and federal stimulus legislation, and in the midst of a healthcare debate that grew more contentious by the day. My staff and I wondered how this context might affect responses.

When we reviewed the findings, we noticed that responses remained fairly steady for questions asked year after year. For example, nearly seven out of ten again said that a family of four needs to earn at least $40,000 a year to make ends meet in their community. The survey also found that 56 percent remain hopeful about the economy. More than eight out of ten, 84 percent, believe the number of people struggling to make ends meet can be reduced in their communities. And 57 percent said they believe they would personally benefit if the number of people struggling to get by in their communities was reduced significantly. They said they are willing to help make this happenbut they also see a crucial role for their government.

The findings suggest that policymakers have a pool of willing partners for the work at hand. Seventy percent said they would be willing to get involved in local government by attending meetings or contacting officials. Eighty percent said they are very or somewhat willing to volunteer with an organization that helps those who are struggling. Most respondents were even willing to consider new taxes. When asked a question that clearly states how the money would be spent, six out of ten (60 percent) said they would be willing to pay $50 dollars more a year in taxes if it would go to programs in their communities that help people who are struggling to make ends meet.

If the survey ended here, the story might read: though Americans have been hit hard by the recession, they are taking action in their own lives and their own communities to turn things around. But the data says more. Sixty percent of respondents said they believe people in their community are struggling because of forces beyond their control, with only 31 percent attributing those struggles to people۪s own mistakes. Respondents understood, in other words, that the challenges we face are larger than any one person or familyand that these challenges require public as well as private responses.

  • Half (51 percent) said the government is currently doing too little. 
  • Virtually all respondents, 97 percent, said state and local elected officials have a responsibility for keeping and attracting good-paying jobs. 
  • More than eight in ten (83 percent) said local officials have a responsibility to get churches, businesses, schools, and other local groups to work together to help.
  • Eight one percent said their local officials have a great deal or some responsibility in making healthcare more affordable and accessible to everyone in their community. 
  • Three quarters (75 percent) said these officials have a responsibility to make sure there is a safety net for homeowners and renters so that they don۪t lose their homes.
  • And three quarters (75 percent) said that when they go into the voting booth, they think about how well a candidate for office would help those who are struggling.

The message is clear: Americans are looking to elected officials for leadership in some very specific areas, and will hold them accountable. Yes, there is raucous debate and honest disagreement about how to overcome challenges like joblessness, the healthcare crisis, and housing insecurity. This does not mean, however, that Americans are blind to the gravity of the choices we now face, or to the urgent need for effective leadership at all levels of society.

Kevin F. Walker is President and CEO of the Northwest Area Foundation

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