Major Gains in Blacks’ Ratings of Their Standard of Living

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Increases first observed in January; ratings have recovered to early 2008 levels

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup Poll Daily tracking of Americans' assessments of their standard of living finds continued improvement among blacks after a dramatic 31-point spike in January. Blacks' score on Gallup's Standard of Living Index dropped to as low as -1 during the height of the financial crisis last October, remaining low in November and December, but it now stands at +62.


The Standard of Living Index is based on respondents' reported satisfaction with their current standard of living and their assessments of whether it is getting better or getting worse. Positive scores indicate that more Americans have a positive view of their standard of living, and negative scores mean more Americans have a negative view. In general, Americans tend to be more positive than negative when asked about their living standard.

Gallup monitors Americans' reported standard of living as part of its daily polling, which began in January 2008. The results reported here are based on monthly aggregates of roughly 30,000 interviews per month.

On the first of the two Index questions -- measuring overall satisfaction or dissatisfaction with one's current standard of living -- blacks (as well as the broader population of all U.S. adults) have been consistently more likely to say they are satisfied than dissatisfied. However, the gap between the percentage satisfied and the percentage dissatisfied shrank to single digits last fall, with 52% of blacks satisfied and 47% dissatisfied in the November data. Those assessments were essentially unchanged in December, but in January they improved significantly, with nearly 6 in 10 blacks satisfied, and have continued to increase since then to the current 64%.


There has been a similar -- though perhaps more dramatic -- shift in blacks' reports of whether their standard of living is "getting better" or "getting worse," the second of the two Index questions. In October, significantly more blacks said their standard of living was getting worse (49%) rather than better (37%). But by January, those numbers had switched places, with 52% of blacks saying their standard of living was getting better and only 32% saying worse. Now, 59% of blacks report their standard of living as improving.


The continued improvement on both Index components has pushed blacks' Standard of Living Index score to +62 in April.

Notably, blacks' score on this index has exceeded that for whites in each of the last three months. Prior to that, whites' score had always been higher than blacks' score.


It is important to note that the data reported here are based on self-reports of standard of living. It is not clear that blacks' objective standard of living has improved greatly in the last few months. Therefore, much of the decline and subsequent improvement during the last year may have been largely perceptual in nature, as opposed to reflecting concrete change.

Given the timing of the recent increase in January, it is hard not to believe it reflects enthusiasm among the black community about Barack Obama's presidency. Blacks may perceive their standard of living to be improving under a Democratic administration -- headed by an African-American president -- which promises to be more in tune with their needs than the prior Republican administration.

Gallup has documented overwhelming support for Obama among the black community, with more than 9 in 10 saying they approve of the job he is doing as president.

There has not been a similar pattern of change in whites' perceptions of their standard of living. After a slight improvement from a +34 Index score in December to +42 in January, the Index score for whites fell back into the 30s. To the extent that whites were hopeful about the prospects of a new administration, it apparently was on a much smaller level and was shorter lived than was the case among blacks.

However, even if the recent improvement is driven to a degree by enthusiasm for changes in the political guard, it is important to point out that blacks' current ratings of their standard of living are similar to what they were in the first quarter of 2008, before the economy started to deteriorate rapidly. Thus, the recent improvement may simply represent a restoration of earlier levels, rather than an improvement above and beyond what had existed before.

Bottom Line

It is unlikely that the election of a new president would have much of an immediate effect on most individuals' actual standard of living. Most Americans would continue to work in the same jobs that they had before the election, with the same income and the same expenses. But having a president that one believes in may just lead people to have a much sunnier outlook, not only on the government but on other aspects of life, and may cause them to rate conditions in a variety of areas more positively. In prior research, Gallup has in fact demonstrated that Americans who identify with the president's party usually give higher ratings to conditions on a national level (such as the economy, national defense, and education, to name a few) -- and even on a personal level (their own finances) -- than do Americans who support the opposition party.

Obama's domestic policies may have the effect of raising blacks' actual standard of living in the future, but given that he has been in office only a short while and the most tangible benefit blacks may have seen thus far is a small income-tax cut, it is probably more likely that the recent improvement in blacks' reported standard of living reflects their confidence in the political leadership and is more perceptual in nature than a real improvement in their living standard.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 29,379 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 1-30, 2009, as part of Gallup Poll Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point.

For results based on the sample of 1,765 blacks, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 23,988 non-Hispanic whites, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Gallup's Standard of Living Index is computed as follows: (% Satisfied with standard of living minus % Dissatisfied) + (% Saying standard of living getting better minus % Saying standard of living getting worse).

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