Jul 26, 2010

From the Archives

Has the Economy Influenced Americans’ Priorities?

Over the last few years the strained economy has dominated news and altered many aspects of business, investing, and fundraising. Has the weakened economy affected what Americans prioritize in life?

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A new study by the Barna Group updates a multi-year tracking study and explores what Americans identify as their highest priority. Family and faith continue to be the most common priorities of Americans, though these have waned in importance since 2006. Meanwhile, other elements such as health, leisure, money, and professional success are more likely to be identified as Americans’ top priorities.

What Priorities have Gained?

In the face of the economic conditions, many Americans have become more focused on surviving and thriving. When asked to identify their highest priority in life, more Americans mention issues of health, leisure, personal comfort, and lifestyle balance than did so just a few years ago. Cumulatively, these priorities have grown from just 13% in 2006 to 20% in the 2010 study.

Another significant “winner” in the last few years has been Americans’ increased emphasis on wealth, financial stability, money, professional attainment, success, and paying bills. These types of priorities have nearly doubled over the past four years, from 9% in 2006 to 17% in the current research.

What Objectives have Lost Ground?
While many observers have suggested that the economy has caused people to become more focused on life’s essentials, the current study shows a drop in two life components that consistently top the list: family and faith.

The percentage of Americans who say their top priority is family has declined (from 51% in 2006 to the current level of 45%). Despite the decline, though, family-related goals – which include having a good family life, being a good parent and having a good marriage – remain the most important priorities to Americans.

Fewer adults said faith is their top priority in the 2010 study (12%) compared to 2006 (16%), although this is a slightly better proportion than 2008 (when just 9% of adults described faith as their top objective in life). Despite the fact that more than three-quarters of adults identify themselves as Christians and nearly nine out of 10 Americans believe in God, matters of “faith” are surprisingly rare when Americans choose their highest priority in life. The types of responses categorized as “faith” include connecting with God, living consistent with their faith principles, and being at peace with God.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, commented on the relatively small proportion of Americans who place top emphasis on faith: “The gap is vast between self-described affiliation with Christianity and ascribing highest priority to that faith. When it comes to why so much of American religion seems merely skin-deep, this gap between what people call themselves and what they prioritize is perhaps most telling.”

Kinnaman indicated that even among some of the most actively involved faith groups, relatively small proportions of adults identify faith as their peak priority. Among Protestants (18%), churchgoers (18%), and non-evangelical born again Christians (16%) less than one-fifth identified faith as their top objective in life. The only exception seems to be evangelicals, among whom two out of every five mention that faith is their highest priority (39%). Among Catholics, just 4% mentioned faith, which is only slightly higher than the levels generated among unchurched adults (2%).

Who Prioritizes What?
Health and lifestyle were most commonly prioritized by Elders (ages 65-plus), downscale adults, singles, those who have ever been divorced, adults without children in their home, Hispanics, and political liberals.

Economic and professional priorities were most likely to be mentioned by men, Mosaics (ages 18 to 25), singles who have never been married, atheists and agnostics, Asians and adults without children living in their home.

Faith generated above-average ratings among women, Elders, residents of the South, evangelicals, churchgoers, African-Americans, and political conservatives.

Those who were most likely to prioritize family were women, Busters (ages 25 to 44), Northeasterners, married adults, Catholics, parents of children under age 18, upscale adults, and political moderates.

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What Do the Findings Mean?
“The conventional wisdom says that when the economy turns bad people focus on ‘basics,’ like family and faith,” indicated Kinnaman, who directed the Barna study. “This research either calls that thinking into question or it tells us that the economy has not been bad enough to cause a significant reprioritization of family and faith. It is also noteworthy that faith is the most volatile of the elements. It is the only type of priority to go down, then up, suggesting uncertainty about the interaction between faith and finances.”

Kinnaman cautioned that the Barna study explored just one angle of the impact of the economy – Americans’ top-of-mind priorities. He pointed out that soon-to-be-released data from Barna Group will further examine how the economy may be influencing religious belief and behavior.

Kinnaman underscored the importance of the current findings. “People are not turning to others – like family members or God – in the face of economic trials. Instead, they are focusing increasingly on themselves, trying to solve their problems by being more ‘balanced’ or by simply working harder. Since the nation’s character is shaped by the collective aspirations of its residents, the economy has revealed Americans’ fixation with individualism and their illusions of being self-made.”

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About the Research

This Barna Update article is based upon a nationwide tracking study, called OmniPollSM, conducted by the Barna Group. The telephone interviews were derived from a random sample of 1,006 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, from January 27 to February 2, 2010. Interviews were conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 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.

“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.”

“Downscale” individuals are those whose annual household income is less than $20,000 and who have not attended college. “Upscale” people are those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more and they have graduated from a four-year college.

Those defined as political “liberals,” “moderates,” and “conservatives” are based on self-identification when asked to identify their common viewpoint on political or social issues. Response options include “mostly conservative,” “mostly liberal,” and “somewhere in-between.”

“Unchurched” adults are respondents who have not been to a religious worship service in the last six months, not including special events such as weddings or funerals.

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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