Americans More Likely to Say Moral Values “Getting Better”

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Still overwhelmingly believe values are getting worse

PRINCETON, NJ -- Though Americans still widely perceive moral values to be deteriorating rather than improving in the United States, there has been a significant increase since last year in the percentage who say moral values are getting better.

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These results are based on the latest Gallup Values and Beliefs Poll, conducted annually each May, including May 7-10 this year.

The current results are the least negative Gallup has found in the May Values polls since 2003, when 24% said U.S. moral values were getting better. Outside of the May Values series, Gallup found a slightly better reading of 27% shortly after George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 -- a year in which voters ranked moral values as the No. 1 issue to their vote in the National Exit Poll.

The improved optimism about moral values evident in the current data is generally the result of higher ratings from Democrats. Democrats (including independents who lean Democratic) are almost three times as likely to say moral values are getting better as they were in May 2008. Essentially the same proportion of Republicans say moral values are improving this year as last year.

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This is the latest example of a likely "Obama effect" that has caused Americans to perceive improving national conditions in a variety of areas, thanks largely to greater optimism among Democrats. Gallup has measured sharp increases since last year in the percentage of Americans rating the economy, the environment, and now, moral values as getting better.

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Even as Americans perceive some positive momentum in U.S. moral values, their ratings of the current state of moral values are essentially unchanged from last year and years prior. Currently, 17% of Americans rate the state of moral values in the U.S. today as "excellent" or "good," compared with 15% last year and an average of 18% in Values Polls from 2002-2008.

At the other end of the spectrum, 45% say the state of moral values in the United States is poor, which is similar to last year's 44% but technically the highest Gallup has found to date.

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Ideological Differences

Americans who identify their political philosophy as "liberal" are the most optimistic about U.S. moral values, in terms of their assessments of both current conditions and whether values are improving. More liberals rate current U.S. moral values as excellent or good (32%) than as poor (27%), the only major demographic or attitudinal subgroup to do so. That is a far cry from the 11% excellent/good and 53% poor ratings from conservatives.

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Similarly, liberals are more likely to say moral values are getting better (45%) than getting worse (42%). This is the first time in the eight-year history of this question that a major subgroup has had a net-positive rating on this measure.

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Implications

Americans are not rating the current state of moral values in the country any more positively this year than last, but there is the sense by a small but growing proportion of the American public (mostly on the left side of the political spectrum) that things are getting better in this area. But this sense of improving conditions may merely reflect increased enthusiasm for a new presidential administration -- chiefly among Democrats, who largely share Obama's political outlook -- as opposed to real, observed improvement in Americans' moral values.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,015 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 7-10, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 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.

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