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Americans Say Economy Is Top Problem Facing Country

No sign of improvement in perceptions of economy


PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans continue to name the economy as the top problem facing the nation today, with signs that concern about jobs and unemployment is a major factor behind the public's economic worries.

Each month, Gallup asks Americans to respond to this question: "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" The open-ended responses are grouped into categories, and the results give us a good indication of Americans' top-of-mind issues and concerns.

There has not been a great deal of change in the basic distribution of responses to the question over the past several months. Economic issues come to mind first for about half of Americans, while much smaller numbers mention terrorism, dissatisfaction with government, lack of ethics and morality, war, healthcare, poverty, education, national security, and foreign aid:

Most Important Problem
August 2003
Aug. 4-6, 2003

This high level of concern over the economy has persisted each month this year. Even when worries about war increased in February and March -- as the conflict with Iraq took center stage in the media -- significant numbers of Americans continued to name the economy or unemployment/jobs as the nation's top problem:

Most Important Problem
Feb. – Aug. 2003

Some changes have taken place this year in the public's perceptions of the top problem facing the nation:

  • Concern over war and/or the war with Iraq has dropped to only 5% in August, after having increased to 35% and 29%, respectively, in February and March of this year.
  • Twelve percent of Americans now mention terrorism as the top problem facing the nation, roughly in line with its positioning on the list throughout this year. One month after the Sept. 11 attacks, this figure was 46%. One year after the attacks, it was 19%.
  • The specific mention of unemployment/jobs as the top problem has increased to 17%, the highest of the year so far.

Differences by Partisan Identification

There are interesting differences in perceptions of the top problems facing the country according to the respondent's partisan identification. In general, Republicans are more likely to mention international and foreign issues, while Democrats are more likely to mention domestic issues.

Here are the top five perceived problems facing the country within each of the three major partisan groups:















Unemployment/ jobs


Unemployment/ jobs


Unemployment/ jobs




Poverty/ homelessness


Moral/ ethical decline


War/fear of war




National security


Foreign aid/ focus overseas


Poor, corrupt leadership


Ratings of Economy in General Are Low

The fact that Americans name the economy as the top problem facing the country is not surprising when we look at the trend data of public perceptions about national economic conditions:

Rating of Current Economic Conditions

As many Americans currently rate the economy as "poor" as rate it "excellent" or "good," and this pattern has persisted over the last year, with some minor fluctuations from month to month. Indeed, although the 23% who rate the economy as poor in August is slightly lower than at some other points this year (e.g., the 34% who rated the economy as poor in mid-February), it is not down significantly enough to represent a solid trend.

Americans' expectations about the direction of the economy have been a little more labile over the last year or two. Americans began to perceive that the economy was getting worse in the late fall of 2000. There was a switch in expectations in the spring of 2002, and Americans became more optimistic than pessimistic for several months. But this burst of optimism was relatively short-lived. The perception that economic conditions were getting worse rose again last summer and stayed high through this spring.

There was another modest uptick in the perceptions of Americans that the economy was getting better in March of this year. For the last four months, over 40% of Americans have said that the economy is getting better, and in one month -- June -- the percentage saying the economy was getting better was slightly higher than the percentage saying it was getting worse.

But there has been no increase in this level of optimism since June, and the current readings are roughly where they were a few months ago.

Economic Conditions
Getting Better or Getting Worse?

Survey Methods

The most recent results are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 18+, conducted Aug. 4-6, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±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.


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