Are you better off? What the polls say.

In 1980, President Ronald Reagan famously asked Americans if they thought they were better off than they were four years ago. Gallup asked that same question this year and editor-in-chief Frank Newport discusses the results.

Sarah Gardner: President Reagan famously asked the question in 1980. And the Republicans are asking it this campaign season: Are you better off than you were four years ago? So, what's America really think? Joining us to talk about the "are you better off" question is Frank Newport. He's the editor-in-chief at Gallup and he's here for our regular Attitude Check. Frank, welcome back.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you.

Gardner: So here we have this seemingly simple question: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Your organization has asked people that question, what did you find?

Newport: We simply said, are you better off than you were four years ago or not? For registered voters across the country, a majority -- 55 percent -- said they were not better off than they were four years ago.

Gardner: Now other pollsters, unnamed pollsters out there, Frank have asked that same question and gotten different responses. Why is that?

Newport: You mean those nefarious other pollsters out there, not Gallup? Well it's not unusual in polling to ask questions in different ways. And the big distinction is that some other polling organization, well-meaning polling organizations, have given Americans a middle alternative, which is that the're the same as four years ago. And when pollsters do that, at least in the polls that I've seen, you still find that the plurality of Americans who make a choice say they are worse off rather than better off. But you have a bigger percent, or at least a sizeable percent, who will say oh yeah, I'm about the same as I was. But the tilt is always towards worse off rather than better off.

Gardner: Do you think they're just thinking about their pocketbooks, the bottom line? Or do you think that they may be thinking about other things in their lives. What do you assume, Frank, as a pollster, that they are basing their answer on?

Newport: We do know one thing. We do track Americans' perceptions of their personal life and their well-being and a lot of other things along those lines and those don't change nearly as much as their perception of what's going out there in the large world around them. So I don't think that Americans say when they are not better off than they were four years ago they're necessarily thinking about things in their personal life 'cause those generally are no a pretty steady keel. Most likely it has to do with these broader things that are going on in the economic, political, social environment -- the kind of things were talking about.

Gardner: So Frank, let me be a pollster for a minute and put you on the spot. Are you better off than you were four years ago?

Newport: Absolutely the same as I was four years ago because we are now in the middle of a political campaign, which is pollster heaven. We love it when there's all this conflict going on that we can measure public opinion about and back four years ago we were in the middle of a presidential election at that point, so I was perfectly happy then and I'm perfectly happy now. How's that for answer?

Gardner: Very good answer, Frank. Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief of Gallup.

Newport: My pleasure.


We did our own little poll here asking that same question: whether you're better off now than you were four years ago and here's what you told us on Facebook.

Jason Worley: I am not. 4 years ago, I had a good job doing engineering & design work for a local GM automotive supply plant. That plant closed in 2009, and I lost that job. In my current job, I do similar work, but for less pay with longer hours....but, I'm thankful that I am employed.

Faith Abbott-Bowden: I wish I could say I was but, because we haven't had raises in 3 years the answer is no. The few extra dollars in our pay thanks to the tax breaks does not offset the increase in gas, electric, home heating oil, propane. Groceries alone have risen for us $25-$35 per week in the past 3 years while purchasing basically the same items. We are unfortunately having to charge any extra like a close to home vaca, car repairs, home repairs and plan on paying the card another month or few. The worst was having my husbands company purchased by Italians who changed his health ins and we now have a $6000.00 deductable which we have met the past two years we have had it. WE would have been ok if not for the insurance issue which has been a huge fiancial strain.

Jon Eisenberg: This question is so selfish. What happened to "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country"? That said, the country is one heck of a lot better off than it was in 2008 when the incompetent George W. Bush was president, we were deeply engaged in two (unfunded) wars and our economy was hemorrhaging 400-800K jobs every month.

Just a few of our listeners who all wrote on our Facebook page voiced by some of our Marketplace crew. Tell us what you think about whether you're better off now than you were four years ago and why.

About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.

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