No Single Problem Dominates Americans' Concerns Today

by Frank Newport

Unlike Previous Years, Americans' Views of Most Important Problem Facing Country Widely Scattered


PRINCETON, N.J. -- Americans today continue to have no overarching, shared national concern which dominates their thinking, unlike the situation at other points in time since the end of World War II. A new Gallup poll asking Americans to name the most important problem facing this country finds that respondents' answers are scattered across a wide variety of social and economic issues, with little concentration on any specific concern. There is relatively little concern about economic issues, and virtually no mention of issues relating to foreign relations or the threat of war. Additionally, despite the extensive publicity given to the crises besetting the White House over the past three months, very few Americans name these issues as our nation's most pressing concerns.

All of these findings are consistent with recent Gallup poll results which show that Americans are in a particularly positive frame of mind about the direction the country is taking across economic and political dimensions.

Crime and Violence Number One Problem, but Levels of Concern Are Low
The most frequent response to Gallup's most important problem question is crime and violence, mentioned by 20% of Americans. (Each respondent in the poll was allowed to name up to three problems). Even though this is the top "vote getter" in the current poll, the number who mention crime is low compared to other recent polls. In 1994, for example, about half of Americans mentioned crime and violence as the most important problem facing the country.

The next five problems mentioned by Americans are: ethics, morality and a decline in family values (mentioned by 16%), education (13%), drugs (12%), and poverty and homelessness (10%). Grouped behind at 8% are welfare, dissatisfaction with the government and/or President Clinton, and Medicare and Social Security concerns.

All together, about 25% of Americans mention some form of economic issue as the nation's top problem, including such loosely related issues as trade relations, taxes, the deficit, and more direct concerns with the economy in general and unemployment. Here, again, the historical record shows this to be a low number. As recently as 1991 through 1993, two-thirds or more of the public named some type of economic concern, including 27% who in 1992 specifically mentioned unemployment. And during most of the 1970s, inflation was consistently cited as the nation's number one problem, at some points mentioned by 70% to 80% of the public.

Absence of Concern Over War or Other Foreign Policy Issues
Worry about foreign policy, international relations or war is almost totally missing from the forefront of American concerns today. This stands in sharp contrast to many other periods since World War II when foreign policy issues dominated the public's responses to this most important problem question. In the early 1950s, the Korean War was the nation's top problem. The threat of war, nuclear proliferation and communism dominated in the mid to late 1950s, and into the 1960s. The Vietnam War moved to the forefront of the public's concerns in 1965, and remained a dominant problem well into the early 1970s. War and peace issues also were highly likely to be top-of-mind through the mid-Reagan years of the 1980s, and again in 1990 and 1991 at the time of the Gulf War tensions. Today, in an environment in which communism as a threat has essentially evaporated, only 4% of Americans mention international issues or foreign affairs concerns in response to the most important problem question.

The current results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,007 adults, conducted April 17-19, 1998. For results based on a sample of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be 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.

What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?

April 17-19, 1998
Economic problems (NET) 25%
Economy in general 6
Taxes 6
Federal budget deficit 5
Unemployment/jobs 5
Trade relations/deficit 1
High cost of living/inflation 1
Recession *
Other specific economic 3
Non-economic problems (NET) 87
Crime/violence 20
Ethics/moral/family decline 16
Education 13
Drugs 12
Poverty/homelessness 10
Welfare 8
Dissatisfaction with gov't/Clinton/Republicans 8
Medicare/Social Security 8
Health care 6
Youth/Teen pregnancy 6
International issues/foreign affairs 4
Racism/race relations 2
Immigration/illegal aliens 2
Environment 2
Foreign aid/focus overseas 2
Abortion 1
Guns/gun control 1
Military downsizing 1
Media/television 1
Other non-economic 9
No opinion 4
* Less than 0.5%
** Total figures add to more than 100% because of multiple responses (but do not include "Nets").  The percentage shown for each specific problem includes all mentions (respondents are allowed to name up to three problems).  Net scores represent the percentage of respondents naming at least one "Economic" problem, or one "Non-Economic" problem.
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