PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans say unemployment is the No. 1 problem facing the United States at the start of 2011, with 29% naming it. Mentions of "the economy" in general as the leading problem have been trending downward since October, and the current 26% reading is the lowest since May. At the same time, focus on the federal deficit has been edging up, and, although similar to the rate mentioning it last February, the 12% of Americans citing it this month is numerically the highest Gallup has recorded in at least a decade.
Gallup first asked the Most Important Problem question in 1939 and has repeated it at least annually almost every year since, establishing monthly updates in 2001. Assessing the long-term trend for the federal budget deficit is difficult because prior to 2001, Gallup combined responses for the deficit with those for the federal budget generally. While in some cases those responses may be comparable, in others -- such as in 1990 and 1996 -- public concern about congressional budget battles was highly distinct from the deficit-specific concerns of today.
The latest update, conducted Jan. 7-9, 2011, finds 68% of Americans naming at least one economic issue and 50% naming at least one non-economic issue as the top problem. The survey was conducted the weekend of the Arizona incident in which six Americans were killed, and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several others were critically wounded, in a shooting rampage. However, it may have been too soon for the survey to measure any resulting changes in Americans' perceptions of the nation's top problem -- such as, perhaps, increases in concern about gun violence.
The leading economic problems named this month are unemployment, the economy, and the federal deficit/debt, followed by lack of money (4%), fuel prices (3%), and taxes (2%). Despite the rising cost of gas in recent months, with average U.S. pump prices in December exceeding $3 per gallon for the first time since October 2008, public mentions of fuel prices have yet to increase significantly. This bears watching in 2011, as mentions of gas prices as the top problem rose to 25% in June 2008, when pump prices exceeded $4.
The top non-economic issue this month is healthcare, but the 13% naming it is half the peak level seen in 2009 prior to passage of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform plan. Dissatisfaction with government, including mentions of corruption and poor leadership by the Congress and the president, is mentioned by 11%. Fewer name immigration (6%) or war in general (5%).
Perhaps simplifying matters for Obama and the new Congress as they set priorities for the coming legislative agenda, Gallup finds relatively little partisan disagreement among Americans about the nation's top problems. Unemployment and the economy rank as the top two most important problems for both Republicans and Democrats. These political groups (each of which includes independents who lean toward that party) also largely agree on the next three problems -- healthcare, the federal budget deficit/debt, and government -- although the federal budget deficit/debt garners significantly more mentions from Republicans, among whom the issue ranks third, than it does from Democrats, for whom it is fifth.
In some cases, regional differences are greater than partisan ones. This is especially evident for immigration, which 10% of Americans living in the West cite as the top problem, compared with 3% in the East, 4% in the South, and 6% in the Midwest.
Americans continue to view the economy as one of the nation's leading problems, but they put slightly less emphasis on it today than they did last fall. At the same time, the percentage of Americans citing unemployment has remained high and the percentage citing the federal budget deficit has expanded. The deficit is now a more prominent public concern than it was for most of last year, and this could have important implications for how much President Obama emphasizes the issue in his State of the Union address and the 2012 budget he prepares for Congress.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Jan. 7-9, 2011, with a random sample of 1,018 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 200 cell phone-only respondents and 800 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
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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