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February 16, 2010 Tuesday CHASE EDITION
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1A
LENGTH: 1531 words
HEADLINE: An America that’s bruised, but still optimistic; Surveys show confidence that better times are ahead
BYLINE: Susan Page
WASHINGTON — Downbeat about today. Upbeat about tomorrow.
With a new decade underway, Americans feel battered by hard times, record home foreclosures, stubbornly high unemployment rates and war. In the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, they are fed up with Washington and convinced by more than 3 to 1 that the nation is heading in the wrong direction.
Even so, confidence that there will be better times ahead — and that the classic American dream endures — hasn’t been extinguished. It’s not even at its low ebb.
James Hanan of Bear, Del., worries as he watches his grown daughter struggle with cutbacks at the bakery where she works.
“One week she works 17 hours and the next week 20 and then she’ll get 12,” the 73-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran says, calling it the toughest job market of his lifetime. Job security is a memory and full-time work hard to find.
“It’s going to get better,” says Hanan, who was called in the survey. Why? He seems surprised by the question. “It’s the American way, I guess.”
The USA TODAY Poll taken last month and the massive Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been surveying 1,000 adults a day for more than two years, underscore the persistence and resiliency of American optimism. Those polled cite the will of the American people — named by more than one in three as a fundamental strength — as well as the power of the U.S. military and the promise of technology and innovation as reasons for optimism about the future.
The leading reasons given for pessimism: government corruption, the threat of terrorism and the travails of the economy and health care.
“There is a kind of default-setting worldview among Americans, and there has been for some time, that depends on the importance of positive thinking, of confidence, of belief in one’s own abilities,” says Jackson Lears, a historian at Rutgers University and author of Rebirth of a Nation. The attitude is embedded in a national culture of self-help and market-based individualism.
“It’s almost un-American not to be optimistic,” he says.
Still, Lears and some other analysts question whether this trait, seen as a strength, is always a good thing. An unwillingness to weigh doubts and the possibilities of failure were among the reasons for missteps that led to the economic meltdown and the invasion of Iraq, essayist Barbara Ehrenreich argues in her book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, published in 2009.
Over the past half-century, the Gallup Poll has asked Americans 16 times what step of a ladder the United States was on, with 10 the best possible situation for the nation and zero the worst. The average response has ranged from a high of 6.7 in 1959, at the end of the Eisenhower era, to a low of 4.8 in 1974, during the Watergate crisis.
Now it’s a relatively low 5.0.
Where will the nation be in five years, in 2015? Those polled predict the United States will have stepped up to a sunnier 5.7.
Indeed, every time the question has been asked, through good times and bad, Americans have said that the country would be on a higher step five years down the road — in other words, that things were sure to be better in the future.
The effects of hard times
The past year or two have been tough.
Three of four Americans in the USA TODAY Poll are dissatisfied with the way things are going. Nine of 10 call it a bad time to find a good job. Forty-one percent rate the state of moral values as poor or terrible, and most say the nation is doing no better than a fair job in taking care of the poor and needy or providing quality health care.
Just as harsh is the judgment of the country’s political leadership. The approval rating for Congress is a dismal 24% — that makes President Obama’s middling 50% rating look good in contrast — and 55% say that “quite a few” of the people running the government are crooked.
Eight in 10 trust the federal government to do what’s right only some of the time or never.
The survey of 1,023 adults, taken by land line and cellphone on Jan. 8-10, has a margin of error of +/-4 percentage points.
Debra Freyer, 46, of Evergreen, Colo., who was among those surveyed, says the inability or unwillingness of political leaders to act on big problems is undermining the public’s trust.
“There’s all this talk that ‘we’re going to get together and do it,’ and yet when it comes down to it, there’s a hidden agenda behind it all” that blocks action on health care and other issues, the elementary-school teacher says. “It’s almost like they’re wanting to sabotage what everybody agreed to do in the first place for some political reason rather than the good of the country. That’s disheartening.”
The Gallup-Healthways survey asked more than 353,000 Americans last year about their jobs, finances, health and communities, creating a huge database of Americans’ assessments of their well-being.
It found that job satisfaction in 2009 dropped compared with 2008. The sense that hometowns were becoming better places to live deteriorated. People were less likely to say they had access to health insurance or enough money for food.
In all, the year-to-year ratings fell in five of six categories — on work environment, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior and basic access to life necessities.
But the sixth category — people’s “life evaluations” of their current situations and their future — jumped by 5 percentage points. The biggest gain was among African Americans, perhaps a consequence of the election of the nation’s first black president. There were significant increases among young adults — those 18 to 29 years old — and among people of moderate means, with annual incomes of $24,000 to $48,000 a year.
Smaller gains were reported in every racial group and every age group and at every income level.
So despite a range of setbacks they reported, Americans’ broad estimation of how things were now and where they were going brightened anyway.
Jim Peterman, 56, the owner of a coffee-roaster business in Newcastle, Maine, says his older son is still repaying college loans four years after he graduated from the University of New Hampshire, and that cost has put graduate school out of his reach for now.
“It’s not like when I came out of school,” Peterman says. “You had a better opportunity with a high school education. Now you need not just a college degree but you need a master’s or a doctorate to get a good job — and that’s very hard to get.”
He says optimism about the future “absolutely” has been dented by hard times, though he goes on: “It’s better than two years ago. We’re working toward getting out of Iraq, and, you know, the economy isn’t quite as bad as it was.”
‘The idea of beginning anew’
What is the source of this quintessential American attitude?
“The root probably is our own revolutionary tradition, the idea of beginning anew,” says Kevin Mattson, a historian at Ohio University’s Contemporary History Institute. “We came from England, where there was this corrupt church and state, and we wanted to create a better society. … It’s this idea of Americans as this chosen people. It’s the idea of American exceptionalism.” Those beliefs have been “hard-wired” into Americans, he says.
That conviction helped fuel the country’s founding, the westward expansion, the determination to persevere through the Great Depression and World War II — although Mattson cautions it also can make it harder to assess intractable problems and learn from past mistakes.
Americans do believe that the nation’s role in the world is changing. Although two-thirds in the USA TODAY Poll say the United States is No. 1 militarily now, a majority predict it will be only one of several military powers in 20 years. Three in four say the U.S. will be only one of several economic powers then.
Even so, nearly two-thirds call their outlook for the country over the next 20 years optimistic. More than six in 10 say it’s likely that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents — a precept of the American dream.
Looking ahead, a majority predict improvements in medicine and health, in race relations and minority affairs, in the willingness of Americans to work hard to better themselves. In fact, in 11 specific areas, a majority say that things will stay the same or get better in all of them over the next 20 years. (On only one, the state of moral values, did a plurality say they would get worse.)
Carol Ferrari, 61, of Walterboro, S.C., has seen the nest egg she and her husband saved plunge in value over the past two years. “We’re looking toward retirement, so he keeps an eye on the stock market and on our investments, and he’s not happy,” she says of her husband. She retired as an art teacher in 2008; he’s still working.
With an election coming up in November, however, she figures legislators will feel pressured to get things done, and she sees tentative signs that the economy is turning around.
“People will start buying more stuff and they’ll start hiring more people,” she predicts. “I really think that there’s a chance things are going to go back up, and not too much longer.”
For more on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, go to www.well-beingindex.com
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