Americans pessimistic, national survey shows

April 06, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Haven't got enough money to pay the bills? Scared stiff about crime? Convinced your kids won't be able to find a decent job?

If so, you're smack in the middle of the anxiety-ridden American mainstream, according to a comprehensive new survey of national opinion released yesterday.

The poll by the Times Mirror Co., which publishes The Sun and other newspapers, provides a glimpse into the volatile, dissatisfied mood of the country seven months before the 1994 midterm elections.

It shows a nation that remains slow to brighten its outlook, more than two years into an economic recovery. Indeed, most Americans believe the country is still stuck in either a recession (33 percent) or depression (21 percent).

There were some notable regional and demographic variations in the survey. For example, pessimism over the national economy is highest in the East. So is dissatisfaction with conditions in the local community.

Fear of crime was highest in the West and among nonwhites. Baby-boomers in the 30-49 age bracket are the most unhappy over the lack of free time in their personal lives. Those over 65 -- that is, those eligible for Medicare -- are happiest with the health care system.

Overall, the survey contains scant good news for President Clinton and casts doubt on other recent polling data that gave Democrats an edge over Republicans in dealing with the nation's problems as the election season began.

It shows Republicans continuing to gain parity with Democrats when voting-aged Americans are asked which political party they identify with. This change is due, in part, to a significant drop in Democratic support among core elements of the party, particularly blacks, union members, lower-income people and Easterners. There has also been a drop in Democratic support among voters in their 30s, while Republicans gained among Hispanics.

The poll found no advantage for Democrats when the public was asked which party's congressional representatives inspired more confidence in solving problems of crime, jobs, health care and welfare. Earlier this year, an ABC News-Washington Post poll suggested that the public considered Democrats better able than Republicans to handle the main problems facing the country over the next few years.

The Times Mirror survey was conducted March 16-21, during a period of heavy news coverage of the Whitewater affair. The poll's authors noted that displeasure over Whitewater "has suppressed satisfaction with the course of the nation, as it has weighed down Clinton's approval ratings." Other surveys since then have shown improvement in the president's job approval ratings.

Among the poll's other findings:

* The economic recovery doesn't seem to be brightening the public's mood the way recoveries usually do. In particular, public attitudes toward the economy seem to be lagging behind other indicators and improving more slowly than expected.

* Fewer than one in four Americans expresses satisfaction with the way things are going in the country. Even among Clinton voters, only about one in three (35 percent) said expressed satisfaction with how things were going nationally.

* Americans are more concerned than ever about events in their personal lives, especially about making ends meet and about becoming a crime victim. Less than half of Americans say they earn enough money to lead the kind of life they want. The biggest problem facing their family is not making enough to pay bills, respondents said.

* Along with rising fear of crime and concern about their children's job prospects, one in two Americans worries about being able to afford health care when a family member gets sick. But the poll indicated that Mr. Clinton is losing ground in the political battle over health care reform, despite widespread agreement that the nation's health care crisis is worsening.

Health care reform is dropping as a national concern, and, even more troublesome for Mr. Clinton, so is public support for two key elements of his plan: universal health coverage and cost controls.

There is also less support for the sacrifices involved in changing the health care system. Most Americans are now unwilling to restrict their choice of doctors and hospitals, wait longer for nonemergency care and delay the introduction of new medical technologies.

* Almost one-third of those surveyed (32 percent) listed crime as the most important problem facing the nation, up from 25 percent in the same poll in December. Four of five Americans (80 percent) worry that they will become a victim of crime, up from 72 percent in December.

Fearful that their local community is losing ground in the fight against crime (a view held by a majority of those questioned), Americans increasingly support hard-line solutions such as longer jail terms, more prison cells and more police officers on the streets. Asked if they believed legalizing drugs such as marijuana and cocaine would reduce violent crime, 12 percent said it would help a lot and 19 percent said it would help a little; nearly two-thirds (65 percent) said it would not help at all.

The survey by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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