Sep 13, 2010

From the Archives

Diverse Set of National Concerns Topped by Widespread Economic Worries

The diversity of the United States’ population has been well-documented: a multi-ethnic mixture of more than 310 million people, comprised of individuals from a wide range of educational and economic backgrounds. Providing effective leadership for such a country is exceedingly challenging. The range of worldviews, faith perspectives, and personal dreams and expectations held by Americans makes it difficult for a national leader to possess a comprehensive and coherent point-of-view that a majority of the public will support. The latest national survey by The Barna Group underscores the breadth of opinions and concerns that Americans possess.

Breadth of Concerns
The national survey among 1,000 randomly chosen adults found that more than 40 different national issues were listed by a significant number of people as matters that they consider to be the most important for the nation’s leaders to address. Those issues related to dimensions such as strengthening the nation’s economy, environmental protection, morality, health care, national security, education, international relations, lifestyle, government corruption, constitutional rights, oil dependency, and the role of government.

The population groups among whom the greatest diversity of issues were expressed included adults in their mid-20s to mid-40s; residents of the western states; upscale adults; born again Christians; adults aligned with non-Christian faiths; and spiritual Skeptics.

Top Concerns
Far and away the most common concerns mentioned related to economic issues. Almost all of the adults interviewed (98%) listed at least one issue pertaining to the economy, including job creation, unemployment, financial hardship, national debt, the recession, and taxes. The top-ranked economic issue related to jobs – either creating them or assisting people who lack one.

The only other issues mentioned by at least one out of every ten adults were health care matters (25%) and issues regarding national security – i.e., either defense against terrorism or the nation’s role in the wars in which the country is presently engaged (24%).

More modest levels of concern were registered in relation to immigration and border control (named by 9%), matters of morality (7%), environmental protection (4%), and educational reform (4%).

Faith and National Issues
Evangelical Christians emerged as a segment that has a distinct set of issues on its mind. Although evangelicals constitute just 7% of the adult public, they were twice as likely as the nation at-large to list government corruption, national security and the reduction of taxes as significant issues. They were only half as likely as others to include education on their list of primary concerns.

Other faith segments also displayed tendencies that strayed from the national norm. For instance, adults associated with non-Christian faiths were more likely to include global poverty and government corruption on their list, but much less likely to include environmental protection, national security, education, and the wars.

Protestants and Catholics differed noticeably. Protestants were more likely to list government corruption, national security and government spending. Catholics were more likely to include issues related to the recession and national economy.

Demographic Segmentation Differences
The nation’s population diversity leads to many distinctions among divergent segments. For instance, on the racial and ethnic front whites were much more concerned about government corruption, immigration, national security and national debt than were other racial and ethnic groups. Blacks, in comparison, were more focused on job creation, health care reform, and education. Hispanics were the group most concerned about lowering taxes and the handling of homosexual rights.

Age differences were apparent, too. The youngest adults (ages 18 to 26) were more likely than their seniors to list global poverty, health care, the war, and educational reform as major concerns. Baby Boomers – a group that, 25 years ago, was more likely than their elders at the time to list those same issues among their dominant concerns – are currently more likely than those younger or older to harp on economic conditions, taxes, and housing. People 65 or older not only mentioned fewer issues than did younger adults, but were also the group most concerned about social security benefits.

Not surprisingly, political ideology raised noticeable distinctions. Conservatives were more likely than others to mention immigration, national security and taxes as top issues. Moderates were more likely to list job creation and health care reform. Liberals were more likely to include environmental matters and economic conditions among their concerns.

Party affiliation also reflected a few disparities. Republicans, much like conservatives, were more likely than other people to mention immigration and national security; they were also more agitated about Social Security. Democrats were more likely than people of other affiliations to name environmental protection. Registered voters who are not affiliated with a party (i.e., Independents) did not have any particular issues they were more likely to mention than were people from the major parties. Adults who are not registered to vote were the most likely to list government corruption. They were also more likely to not identify any issues at all. That pair of responses is indicative of their disengagement with the sociopolitical process.

Presidential Support
Responses also varied in relation to a person’s level of support for President Obama. The adults who said they would be most likely to vote to re-elect President Obama were more likely than other adults to list job creation, the environment, global poverty, health care, the wars, and education as their issues of concern.

The adults who said they would be most likely to vote for someone other than President Obama were more likely than the President’s supporters to identify immigration, national security, taxes, national debt, government spending and waste, government corruption, the oil spill in the Gulf, and the nation’s moral condition as their primary issues.

Reflections on the Findings
The survey asked people an open-ended question – that is, a question without any suggested answers or which required them to reaction to a list of possible issues. It is unusual when asking an open-ended question to generate a response that is as universal (i.e., economic recovery) as did this one; in fact, compared to past instances when we have asked such an open-ended question about critical issues, we have never before seen such unanimity around a particular issue or category of issues.

In other words, public officials who have influence on economic matters at any level need to be particularly focused on one thing during this election season: how to help Americans feel as if personal and public economic conditions are improving. Nothing else matters as much to Americans right now. There are occasional, short-lived distractions from people’s economic concerns – such as the Gulf oil spill – but until the economy gets on better footing, it is likely to remain people’s primary preoccupation. The public is not looking for leaders who merely acknowledge there is an economic problem – they know that up close and personal – but for officials who bring specific and viable solutions to the table.

The other issues of interest to Americans follow a long-established pattern related to age. Young adults tend to have a rather global, altruistic perspective – until they take on a greater level of family responsibilities. At that point, financial issues generally rise to the top of their list. After one’s children leave home, the focus shifts once again, elevating the importance of self-preservation issues (e.g., Social Security, health care).

An outcome of this study that is consistent with past results is that evangelical Christians seem less interested in matters of justice and service than might be expected. On matters such as global poverty, educational reform, environmental care, and health care, evangelicals’ concern about these issues is average or below average. The current survey also provided a surprising departure from the past answers provided by evangelicals: moral values and behavior, traditionally a matter of considerable concern to evangelicals, was rarely mentioned. That does not mean that evangelicals have no interest in the nation’s moral conditions; anxiety about government corruption generated an above-average level of concern among evangelicals, and there are certainly moral elements to the conduct of the wars, national security and related to economic issues. However, within the context of all the issues facing the nation, it seems that few evangelicals consider the moral state of the nation to be a specific issue they want to see political leaders focus upon more heavily.

About the Research
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1,000 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, August 16-22, 2010. The interviews included 125 among people using cell phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The survey included interviews among 822 registered voters. The estimated maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sample of registered voters is ±3.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

The survey question on which the data in this report is based was: “What do you think are the two most important issues for political leaders to address these days?” Responses that were vague or unclear were probed by the interviewers to seek clarity.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Skeptics” refers to people who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic.

“Baby Boomers” are people who were born during the years from 1946 through 1964.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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