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Polling Matters
Despite U.S. Economic Success, Financial Anxiety Remains
Polling Matters

Despite U.S. Economic Success, Financial Anxiety Remains

by V. Lance Tarrance

President Donald Trump has repeatedly touted the U.S. economy as performing extremely well, with nearly full employment and over 3% growth in the economy. Many political leaders anticipate the 2020 presidential election will revolve around this positive national economic picture for the voters.

But there's always been a paradox with national economic success, as it means voters can afford to turn their attention to other issues. As the old saying goes, "All that glitters is not always gold."

One such potential issue is Americans' personal financial insecurity. According to a recent Gallup poll, 40% of Americans say they are either running into debt or barely making ends meet. Personal financial anxiety is even greater among employed households when considering that only 25% of this group report they are saving enough for retirement. Almost as many admit they have saved nothing at all (18%).

Gallup's annual survey on personal finances, conducted each April, collects more specific data on American's personal financial concerns. This is done with a question asking whether they are "very worried," "moderately worried," "not too worried" or "not worried at all" about each of eight financial matters.

When people are "worried," they are, by definition, expressing a feeling of strong anxiety or unease. At the very least, worry signals fear of an anticipated threat. Ideally, politics is about concerned leaders proposing solutions to the problems troubling worried voters.

And here is the rub. While the percentage of Americans rating the economy "only fair" or "poor" has dropped 27 points between the two April surveys in 2016 and 2019, most of their personal financial worries declined by only a few points.

In other words, as the economy has improved during Trump's presidency, Americans' anxiety about most financial matters has not. This includes the core middle class concerns of paying for normal healthcare, paying for children's college and paying for rent or mortgage.

Changes in Economic and Financial Worries Since 2016
April 2016 April 2019 Change
% % pct. pts.
U.S. economic worries
Conditions only fair/poor 74 47 -27
Conditions getting worse 53 45 -8
Personal financial worries
Making minimum payment on credit cards 21 20 -1
Paying for children's college 37 36 -1
Paying for normal healthcare 45 42 -3
Paying rent or mortgage 34 30 -4
Paying normal bills 41 36 -5
Medical costs for serious illness or accident 60 51 -9
Maintaining standard of living 51 42 -9
Lacking money for retirement 64 54 -10

Without the economy distracting them, Americans' financial worries could have a direct impact on how they respond to the 2020 candidates, and even whether they vote or stay home. As the Swedish proverb goes, "Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow."

With Republicans failing to deliver on their promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, it's particularly noteworthy that people's concerns about paying for normal healthcare has hardly budged. Since Republicans were unable to deliver on their "repeal and replace" promise, voters may be looking back to Democrats for a solution.

Many Trump Admirers Worried About Healthcare, Long-Range Bills

A factor analysis finds that Americans can be grouped into four major categories according to their pattern of financial worries in the April 2019 survey.

  • About half (49%) have at least one immediate worry such as paying their rent or mortgage, making the minimum payments on their credit cards or paying their normal monthly bills.
  • 14% have no immediate financial concerns, but do worry about one or both healthcare issues: paying for normal healthcare or paying the medical costs involved with a major illness or accident.
  • 10% have no immediate or healthcare worries, but have financial anxiety related to longer-term issues: affording retirement and/or paying for a child's college.
  • All others go into a non-worry group which represents about a quarter of the public (27%).

Since national economic and financial anxiety will ultimately redound on Trump, presidential job approval is a key standard for understanding the linkage of anxiety to the election. The three regrouped categories of short-term cash concerns, long-term concerns and healthcare concerns are outlined below by Trump job approval and party identification.

Those with immediate cashflow concerns tend to be Democrats and disapprove of Trump while those with no concerns are mostly Republicans and approve of Trump. But those with healthcare-specific anxiety or fear of their long-term financial stability are more evenly split politically. This means that these two broad areas could be pivotal in the 2020 elections as their impact could benefit either political party.

Political Makeup of Different Financial Worry Types
Immediate cashflow concerns (49%) Healthcare only (14%) Long range concerns only (10%) No concerns (27%)
% % % %
Trump approval
Approve 30 52 49 67
Disapprove 66 44 49 30
No opinion 5 4 2 3
Party ID
Republican/Lean Republican 33 50 44 63
Independent-no lean 13 6 7 6
Democrat/Lean Democratic 55 45 48 31
Gallup, April 1-9, 2019

Bottom Line

As the American novelist and playwright Arthur Somers Roche said, "Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained."

Over 50% of Americans are very or moderately concerned about paying for catastrophic healthcare and about their retirement savings, which could offset voters' satisfaction with the current U.S. economic picture.

Those most concerned about catastrophic healthcare costs includes a substantial proportion of Republicans who apparently are still waiting for a better national solution than the current one. Despite the positive national economic picture in the country today, Gallup data exposes an abundance of personal anxieties that will need to be addressed.


V. Lance Tarrance is a Gallup contributor.

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