Half of Americans Say Energy Prices Have Caused Them Financial Hardship

by Frank Newport

Six in 10 say they will cut back on summer travel

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Well over half of Americans now say the energy situation in this country is very serious, one out of two say the increasing cost of energy has caused them financial hardship, and almost six out of 10 say the rising price of gasoline will force them to cut back on their summer travel plans. These and other findings from a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll underscore the impact that the rising cost and diminished availability of energy are having on the average American. At the same time, although it is not possible to pinpoint the role energy is playing in the public's perception of President George W. Bush, the poll shows that Bush's job approval rating is at 53% -- identical to his late March rating, but down from his administration's high point of 62% measured three weeks ago.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the energy situation's increasing significance for Americans comes from the response to a simple question that Gallup first asked back in 1977: "How serious would you say the energy situation is in the United States -- very serious, fairly serious, or not at all serious?" The question was asked a number of times in the late 1970s, again in the early 1990s and twice this year. In just the last two months, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of those who say the energy situation in the United States is very serious -- from 31% at the beginning of March to 58% in the just-completed poll, conducted May 7-9. Indeed, the current 58% is the highest ever recorded in response to this question -- significantly higher than the previous high point of 47%, recorded in August 1979.

It comes as no great shock that residents of California, about 11% of the U.S. population, are the most negative about the energy situation: 68% of California residents say the energy situation is "very serious." The average across the East, South and Midwest is 57%.

Impact of Gasoline Prices

The rising cost of energy can affect Americans in a wide variety of ways: from the dramatic rolling electricity blackouts suffered by Californians, to energy surcharges now beginning to show up on the cost of various products and services across the country. But perhaps the most immediate energy impact is the cost of gasoline at the pump, something that confronts us directly every time we fill up our cars.

The poll shows that about half of Americans say the "recent price increases in gasoline" have caused financial hardship for their households -- a number that is slightly higher than was recorded across the winter, spring and early summer of 2000. As has generally been the case in the past, those with the lowest incomes are most likely to have been adversely affected.

  • Fifty-five percent of those making under $20,000 a year say the cost of energy has caused them financial hardship, compared to 28% of those in the $75,000-and-higher income bracket.
  • Although those living in California are most likely to say that gasoline prices have caused them hardship (56% of Californians say this), the broader West Coast region is no more likely than anywhere else to have reported such an impact. Fifty-two percent of those in the South and 48% of those in the Midwest say they have been negatively affected, compared to a slightly lower 45% on the West Coast and only 39% in the East.

Because Democrats nationally tend to have lower incomes than Republicans do, it is not surprising to find a 12-point difference in perceptions of hardship among those affiliating with the two parties: 48% of Democrats claim financial hardship as a result of the increase in gasoline prices, compared to 36% of Republicans.

What about the possible impact of high gas prices on the summer travel season? Last May, 41% of Americans said they would be driving less because of the price of gas, and by last June, that number was up to 50%. Now, 58% say they will be driving less this summer. Again, Americans living in the South and Midwest are most likely to say they will be curtailing their driving, while -- interestingly -- those least likely to say they will drive less are in the West. In fact, 56% of the residents of California say they will be driving less -- about the same as the national average -- suggesting that Californians will apparently stay wedded to their automobiles even if the price of gas reaches the $3-a-gallon level, as some have predicted.

Whither Gas Prices?

The American public is apparently settling in for a possible long-term increase in gas prices. A majority of Americans -- 56% -- say the recent rise in gas prices is "more permanent," and not just a "temporary fluctuation." We asked the same question four times last year -- in March, May and June -- and in three of those four polls, less than 40% said the rise in prices was permanent. The high point, in May, was 50%, still 6% lower than the current number.

This fear that gas price increases are permanent is echoed in Americans' responses to two questions about whether they expect gas prices to go up, go down, or stay the same over the next month, and over the next six months. Only 3% say that prices will be lower in one month, and only 24% are willing to venture the guess that they will be lower in six months.

Indeed, Americans are decidedly pessimistic when they are asked to look forward just one month and guess the direction gas prices will take. Over eight out of 10 Americans -- 83% -- say they believe gas prices will be even higher one month from now, the most pessimistic response to this question we have measured in the four times it has been asked. In March 2000, the number saying "higher" one month from now was 74%, but fell to 51% by last May and 38% last June.

Asked to look ahead six months, Americans become decidedly more positive -- at least on a relative basis. Thirty-eight percent say gas prices will be higher, and 37% say they will be about the same. However, only 24% say they will be lower -- the lowest such proportion measured in the four times the question has been administered. Last March, 34% said prices would be getting lower in six months, but that number went up to about 50% last May and June.

Negative Impact on Bush?

It is hard to pinpoint the impact that increasing energy prices will have on President George W. Bush. Bush's job approval on his handling of the energy situation was at only 43% in late April, tied for the lowest approval rating across 11 dimensions tested. Bush's overall job approval in that poll, however, was 62%, a relatively high rating most likely due in part to the successful return of the U.S. Navy spy plane crew detained in China. Now, three weeks later, Bush's overall job approval rating has fallen to 53% -- a tie for the lowest of his still young administration.

Survey Methods

The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,005 adults, 18 years and older, conducted May 7-9, 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. 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.

How serious would you say the energy situation is in the United States -- very serious, fairly serious, or not at all serious?

 

 

Very
serious

Fairly
serious

Not at all
serious

No
opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 7-9

58

36

4

2

         

2001 Mar 5-7

31

59

9

1

1991 Feb 7-10

40

44

14

2

1990 Sep 27-30

32

46

19

3

1990 Sep 10-11

28

48

21

3

1990 Aug 9-12

28

45

23

4

1979 Aug 3-6

47

35

16

3

1979 Jun 1-4

37

36

24

3

1979 Apr 27-May 4

44

36

16

4

1979 Feb 23-26

43

42

13

2

1978 Mar 31-Apr 3

41

39

15

5

1977 Nov 18-21

40

42

14

4

1977 Sep 30-Oct 3

40

40

16

4

1977 Aug 5-8

38

43

13

6

1977 Jun 3-6

40

42

13

5

1977 Apr 29-May 2

44

40

11

5

1977 Apr 1-4

41

39

16

4



Do you think the current rise in gas prices represents -- [ROTATED: a temporary fluctuation in prices, or a more permanent change in prices]?

BASED ON -- 500 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A; ±5 PCT. PTS.

 

 

Temporary

More permanent

No opinion

 

%

%

%

       

2001 May 7-9

40

56

4

       

2000 Jun 22-25

57

39

4

2000 May 23-24

45

50

5

2000 Mar 30-Apr 2

60

37

3

2000 Mar 10-12

63

34

3



Looking ahead to one month from now, do you think gas prices at that time will be -- [ROTATED: higher than they are today, about the same, or lower than they are today]?

BASED ON -- 505 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B; ±5 PCT. PTS.

 

 

Higher

About the same

Lower

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 7-9

83

13

3

1

         

2000 Jun 22-25

38

39

22

1

2000 May 23-24

51

33

14

2

2000 Mar 10-12

74

16

9

1



Looking ahead to six months from now, do you think gas prices at that time will be -- [ROTATED: higher than they are today, about the same, or lower than they are today]?

BASED ON -- 505 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B; ±5 PCT. PTS.

 

 

Higher

About the same

Lower

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 7-9

38

37

24

1

       

2000 Jun 22-25

20

28

50

2

2000 May 23-24

24

25

49

2

2000 Mar 10-12

37

26

34

3



Have recent price increases in gasoline caused any financial hardship for you or your household?

 

 

Yes,
caused hardship

No, have not
caused hardship

No
opinion

 

%

%

%

       

2001 May 7-9

47

53

*

       

2000 Jun 22-25

44

56

*

2000 May 23-24

36

64

*

2000 Mar 30-Apr 2

39

61

*

2000 Mar 10-12

41

59

*

2000 Feb 14-15 ^

40

60

*

^

WORDING: Have recent price increases in gasoline, diesel fuel and home fuel oil caused any financial hardship for you or your household?



Will the price of gas cause you to drive less than you might have otherwise this summer, or not?

 

 

Yes

No

No opinion

 

%

%

%

       

2001 May 7-9

58

41

1

       

2000 Jun 22-25

50

49

1

2000 May 23-24

41

57

2



* Less than 0.5%

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