Majority in U.S. Still Say Moral Values Getting Worse
Social Issues

Majority in U.S. Still Say Moral Values Getting Worse

by Justin McCarthy

Story Highlights

  • Seventy-two percent of Americans say U.S. morals in decline
  • Forty-five percent describe state of moral values as "poor"
  • Social conservatives most likely to say morals "getting worse"

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Most Americans (72%) continue to believe the state of moral values in the U.S. is "getting worse," while 22% say it is "getting better." Large majorities have said the state of moral values in the U.S. is declining since Gallup started asking this question annually in 2002.

Americans' Outlook on State of Moral Values in the U.S.

Americans were slightly less pessimistic about the direction of the country's morals in 2002 and 2003, when two-thirds (67%) said it was getting worse. Pessimism peaked between 2006 and 2008, when more than four in five Americans thought the state of moral values was declining.

Social Conservatives Most Likely to Say Morals in Decline

Across most demographic groups, clear majorities of Americans have consistently said the country's morals are deteriorating. But those who identify as social conservatives have consistently been more likely than social liberals to believe the nation's state of moral values is getting worse, with social moderates falling about midway between the two. The liberal-conservative gap was relatively narrow in the first two years Gallup measured this, in 2002 and 2003, but that may have reflected the more positive feelings Americans had about their country in the first few years after 9/11.

Since then, a sizable gap has emerged, with upward of 80% of social conservatives consistently saying the state of morals is getting worse. Meanwhile, social liberals' outlook soured in the last five years of President George W. Bush's presidency, perhaps reflecting their disagreement with the Iraq War. But social liberals then turned sharply less negative upon Democratic President Barack Obama's taking office in 2009, while social conservatives' views have changed little since 2004.

Outlook on State of Moral Values in the U.S., by Social Ideology

The latest results are from Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs poll, conducted May 6-10. According to the same survey, Americans have become more likely to say they are liberal on social issues and less likely to say they are socially conservative. Additionally, Americans have become increasingly likely to consider certain behaviors morally acceptable than they did in the past.

Americans Most Likely to Rate State of Moral Values as "Poor"

Apart from their perceptions of the direction in which morals are headed, 45% of Americans describe the current state of moral values in the U.S. as "poor," with 34% saying they are "only fair" and 19% rating the state of moral values as either "excellent" or "good."

The percentage who say the state of moral values is currently poor is up slightly from 42% a year ago, and matches the high from 2009 and 2010.

Americans' Views on Current State of Moral Values in the U.S.

Social conservatives tend to be the most likely to describe the state of U.S. values as poor. This view has increased from as low as 42% in 2003 to a high of 63% in 2013. Currently, 57% of social conservatives say the state of moral values is poor. Social moderates, too, have increased in this view over time, reaching a new high this year of 46% -- up from a low of 31% in 2003.

Social liberals, meanwhile, have had less movement in their views of the U.S. being in a state of poor moral values, ranging from a low of 26% in 2011 and 2013 to a high of 36% in 2006 amid the war in Iraq. On average, their views are slightly less negative under the Obama presidency than they were under the Bush presidency.

Views on Current State of Moral Values in the U.S., by Social Ideology

Bottom Line

Americans' views of the state of moral values haven't changed much over the past 13 years. Despite significant shifts in Americans' views on same-sex marriage and other moral issues, as well as the increase in those who identify as social liberals, Americans are about as likely as they were in 2002 to consider moral values in the U.S. to be poor and to say they are heading for further decay.

Perhaps this is because Americans don't answer the questions with such politically charged issues in mind. According to open-ended questions Gallup asked about moral values in 2010 and 2012, Americans' views about the declining state of moral affairs largely reflect a belief that there is a deteriorating collective moral character. That is, their views have less to do with greater acceptance of same-sex marriage or having babies out of wedlock and other hot-button issues, and more to do with matters of basic civility and respect for each other.

Historical data on these questions are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 6-10, 2015, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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