PRINCETON, NJ -- The 55% of Americans naming the economy, generally, as the nation's top problem in December marks the second straight month that a majority of Americans have coalesced around the issue.
According to the Dec. 4-7 poll, the combined percentage of Americans naming any aspect of the economy as the nation's top problem is 77%, identical to last month's figure. This includes unemployment, "lack of money," recession, taxes, and other specific issues, in addition to simply "the economy."
After registering in the mid-30s for most of the year, the percentage of Americans naming the economy in general as the most important problem rose to 41% in September and 47% in October, before surpassing the 50% mark in November with 58%. Prior to this year, the highest percentage mentioning the economy was 42%, in 1991.
Still, Gallup's long-term Most Important Problem trend includes several years when public concern about specific economic issues exceeded today's general concern about the economy.
From 1978 to 1981 -- overlapping the start of the 1980 recession -- more than half of Americans consistently mentioned inflation or the high cost of living as the nation's top problem. This included several readings above 60% and a remarkable 83% reading in October 1978.
Between 1973 and 1975, spanning a recession of the same time frame, there were several instances when mentions of inflation and the high cost of living registered above 60% and even 70%.
Unemployment was a dominant concern in 1945, when 77% cited the lack of jobs as the nation's top problem. The issue re-emerged in the early 1980s, with readings as high as 53%.
Gallup's first Most Important Problem measure was asked in April 1939, during the Great Depression. At that time, the most often-cited problem was unemployment/jobs, mentioned by 46%.
"Economy" Far Outpaces "Jobs"
Today's findings are unique in that most Americans perceive the entire economy -- not just one aspect of it -- to be the country's chief problem. While concern about unemployment is growing as job losses continue to mount, the percentage citing that specific issue remains fairly low at 12%. It was 8% in November and only 3% in October.
In terms of other specific mentions, the situation in Iraq now ties dissatisfaction with government and "lack of money" as the third-highest-ranking public concern, each mentioned by 9%. Ethics/Moral decline and healthcare tie for fourth place, each cited by 5%. The last time Iraq was in the single digits on this measure was in August 2003.
No other issue is cited by more than 3% of Americans.
What a Difference a Year Makes
Today's order of perceived top problems is quite different from that of December 2007, when Iraq (with 29% mentions) ranked No. 1 and the economy (13%) No. 2. It is also starkly different from perceptions in June of this year, when a quarter of Americans mentioned fuel prices -- nearly matching the economy, the top-ranked issue, with 36%. With fuel prices now well below $2 in most of the country, the cost of energy has virtually disappeared as a concern. Today, only 1% of Americans cite it as the top problem.
The current economic recession, reportedly already a year in progress, may or may not be worse than what the country experienced in the 1970s or early 1980s, but it certainly has a different flavor. Whereas those downturns were particularly challenging in one area, such as inflation or jobs, the current economic meltdown involves a dizzying cycle of bad economic news that encompasses the housing market, the job market, the stock markets, the credit markets, and the entire retail sector of the economy.
While over three-quarters of Americans name some aspect of the economy as the nation's most important problem, the increasing percentage of Americans, now 55%, who mention just "the economy," without further specification, underscores the broad scope of the current economic crisis in Americans' minds.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 4-7, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
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.