Attitude Check

Are Americans confident in their economic futures?

Marketplace Contributor Apr 26, 2012

Tess Vigeland: There’s nothing like high unemployment, a shaky housing market and a lukewarm recovery to get people thinking about not just the economy writ-large, but their wallets and bank accounts. Not to mention, their futures.

Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief of Gallup. He’s with us every week for Attitude Check, our partnership with Gallup exploring what Americans think about the big issues making news. Frank it’s good to talk to you.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you.

Vigeland: So as things are heating up in the race for president, and the discussion around the economy’s picking up — everything from student loan debt, the big conversation this week; anything to do with jobs — how confident are Americans feeling about our economy?

Newport: Well, the key question at the moment is how comfortable people feel about their own personal finances. Actually, consumer confidence is up a little, but we have an interesting question where we say: Just thinking about you personally, do you have enough money to live comfortably? And that has actually fallen: That’s now at 60 percent, six out of 10 Americans say affirmative on that. Just a few years ago, in the middle of the last decade, that was well above 70 percent. The concern is, will that curtail spending and hurt the economy?

Vigeland: Out of curiosity, do you have any data about what people say is holding them back? Is there any one financial problem that’s weighing on folks?

Newport: It’s all of the above. We asked what we call an open-ended question, very interesting, we said: All right, tell us in your own words what’s the big financial problem facing your family today? It’s not like health care costs dominate or energy costs, the cost of gasoline — it’s kind of all of the above. Actually, the No. 1 response is: ‘I don’t have enough money.’ How’s that for a pretty simple response? Then they mentioned health care costs, costs of owning or renting a home, the high costs of living, inflation, gas prices, ‘I’m in too much debt,’ and then unemployment, college expenses. But it’s kind of like everybody has a different problem but they all add up to continued financial angst.

Vigeland: Boy I’ll tell you, we certainly see that here at Marketplace and the questions that we get from listeners, and you know, the folks who are talking about not having enough money, month in and month out. Then they start worrying about retirement down the road, because they’re not able to save anything. Has that come up in your survey?

Newport: Of those who are not retired, only 38 percent now say that they think they will have enough money to live comfortably when they retire — that used to be well above 50 percent. So that’s really causing angst out there. And guess what the age group where that’s highest: 50 to 64. I’m assuming that’s because they’ve seen their 401(k)s decimated in recent years and they’ve been told that Social Security may go bankrupt. All of these things are adding on Americans’ mindset when they think about retirement, and there’s a lot concern out there.

Vigeland: Any sentiment coming from younger Americans? How are they feeling about retirement?

Newport: Hope springs eternal in the breasts of young people today. Over half of people 18 to 29 today say, sure, I’ll have enough to live comfortably when I retire. After all, that’s decades and decades away. But as you get closer to 65, you’re less and less likely to be optimistic about having enough money to retire.

Vigeland: Well I’m glad to hear that about those younger folks because I suppose even though so many of them don’t have jobs, they’re still keeping the faith, right?

Newport: Yes, and I think that as I’ve mentioned, it’s simply because that’s so far away. They’re assuming that brilliant politicians and others will have the whole situation fixed by, when would it be, 2050 or 2060, whenever it is when they retire.

Vigeland: OK. We’ll leave it there. Frank Newport is editor-in-chief of Gallup. Thanks so much.

Newport: My pleasure.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.