Unemployment Remains Pressing Issue for Americans

by Lymari Morales

More see it as the country’s “most important problem”; healthcare also edges higher

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. President Barack Obama may have sensed Americans' growing anxiety about unemployment in warning Tuesday that he expects the jobless rate to continue to increase over the next several months. Two in 10 Americans (19%) this month name unemployment/jobs as the country's most important problem -- up from 14% last month and nearing the recent high point of 20% recorded in February.


Mentions of unemployment/jobs as the country's most important problem edged lower in the months after Obama in February signed the $787 billion economic stimulus package into law, but this month's finding erases those gains. The U.S. government recently reported a June unemployment rate of 9.5%, and Obama says he expects to see that number soon climb to the double-digit threshold of 10%. A different Gallup Poll conducted in late June found 87% of Americans saying they were worried about the rising unemployment rate, more than were worried about any other issue tested.

Americans' mentions of unemployment/jobs as the country's most important problem have yet to reach the levels found in the aftermath of recent recessions. In the early '90s, 27% of Americans at one point named unemployment/jobs as the most important problem, and that number hit 53% during a period of double-digit unemployment in 1983. Also, once in 2004, a statistically similar 20% named unemployment/jobs as the most important problem facing the country.


Currently, 69% of Americans volunteer something about the economy when asked, in an open-ended fashion, to name the most important problem facing the country. This is up from 65% a month ago and 61% last July. During the same period, the percentage naming unemployment/jobs as the most important problem has quadrupled, from 5% in July 2008 to 19% now.


Job loss is hitting close to home for the 26% of working Americans who last week reported in Gallup Poll Daily tracking that their own employers were letting employees go, compared to 25% who said their employers were hiring, and 42% who said the size of their workforces were neither growing nor contracting. Underscoring the extent to which Americans are not personally seeing much improvement in the jobs situation, the monthly figures for June 2009 and January 2009 on this question are identical -- with 26% of working Americans saying their employers were letting employees go, versus 23% who said their employers were hiring.


The July Gallup Poll also finds that the vast majority of Americans (87%) say now is a bad time to find a quality job, versus 11% who say it is a good time. This is in the middle of the narrow range Gallup has recorded since last October (82% to 90% bad time; 9% to 14% good time). The 90% who in February and March said it was a bad time to find a quality job are the highs for this measure since Gallup began asking the question in 2001, but are just a few points higher than the current reading.

Healthcare Edges Up Amid Legislative Debate

After the economy in general and unemployment/jobs, Americans today most often name healthcare as the most important problem facing the country -- 16% mention this, up from 14% in June and 6% a year ago. This is the most concern Americans have expressed about healthcare since 1993 and 1994 -- when the Clinton administration made its attempt at healthcare reform, just as the Obama administration is doing now. It is likely that the extensive coverage of the healthcare issue is playing a role in increasing its top-of-mind salience for Americans as a top problem facing the country.


Healthcare now easily surpasses all non-economic issues mentioned, even tripling the situation in Iraq -- which was considered the country's most important problem from April 2004 until the economy surpassed it in February 2008.



The steady climb in the nation's unemployment rate in the months after the February passage of a $787 billion economic stimulus package is clearly registering with Americans. Americans are now nearly as likely as they were before the passage of that bill to name unemployment/jobs as the most important problem facing the country. They are also almost as likely as they were before the bill's passage to say now is a bad time to find a quality job.

The slight easing in worry about unemployment from February until June suggests that Americans initially had some confidence in the Obama administration's claim that the stimulus would create enough jobs to keep the unemployment rate below 8%. But the increase in mentions of unemployment/jobs this month suggests more Americans may be beginning to doubt that claim. While President Obama and his economic advisers say the stimulus is on track and that an additional package isn't necessary at this point, unemployment clearly remains a pressing issue for Americans, and a further rise in the unemployment rate could trigger views even more negative than those recorded prior to the stimulus bill's passage. Without measurable improvement in economic attitudes, it is difficult to expect consumer behavior to change for the better, and thus the jobs situation continues to create a significant obstacle to true economic recovery.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,018 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 10-12, 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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