PRINCETON, NJ -- When asked in an open-ended question to name the most important financial problem facing their families today, one in six Americans (17%) say low wages and a lack of money. Healthcare costs are next, at 14%. While the mentions of healthcare might be attributed to its prominence in the news, the issue of low wages may reflect another aspect of the job crisis in America today.
Too much debt ranks third, at 10%, followed by the cost of renting or owning a home at 9%. Unemployment is tied for fifth with college costs at 7%.
The percentage of Americans who name lack of money/low wages now matches the high on this measure since Gallup began asking the question in January 2005. It has been the most commonly mentioned issue each of the last three times Gallup has asked this question (April, June, and November 2009), and tied with too much debt as the top issue in February 2009.
Americans' concern about lack of money/low wages may explain why Gallup has seen evidence of a "paycheck effect" in its recent weekly updates on Americans' reported spending habits, with spending increasing in and around the most common paydays (the 1st and 15th of each month) and declining in other weeks. Americans have clearly dialed back their spending this year compared to last, and, given the apparent paycheck effect, may be waiting for that next check before opening their wallets at their local stores.
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke noted in a speech on Monday that many employers were cutting their workers' hours and reducing their pay. In a sense, this is a natural result of a double-digit unemployment rate and nearly one in five Americans' being unemployed or underemployed. U.S. companies have done a terrific job of cutting costs and increasing productivity to maintain profitability even as top-line revenues decline. With Americans fearing for their jobs and companies operating in survival mode, wages and incomes are likely to decline.
However, this low-wage aspect of today's global surplus of available labor is often lost during the discussion of job losses and the need for job creation. Low-wage and temporary jobs may help cushion some of the worst aspects of a double-digit unemployment rate, but only the creation of high-paying, quality jobs is going to get the U.S. economy back on the path to real economic health. As long as such jobs are not being created, a lack of money will not only inhibit consumer spending but also make it increasingly difficult for many Americans to pay their bills and manage their credit.
Right now, arguments continue to flourish over how many jobs were created by the emergency stimulus program passed earlier this year. But as interesting as that debate may be politically, the focus on the numbers illustrates the complexity of the current job crisis. Pay and the longer-term viability of the jobs created may be more important than the mere number of jobs in addressing not only the unemployment problem but also the low wages hurting many Americans families this holiday season.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,008 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 5-8, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of 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.