PRINCETON, NJ -- Seventy-two percent of Americans cite some aspect of the U.S. economy as the "most important problem" facing the country today. This is the highest net mention of the economy since February 2010, although still below the 86% peak recorded in February 2009 as Washington was focused on passing an economic stimulus plan.
Gallup began asking the "most important problem" question in 1939 and established monthly updates in 2001. Economic concerns became dominant for Americans in April 2008 and have since tied or outpaced non-economic concerns in all but four months.
The latest update is from a March 3-6 Gallup poll. The top five economic problems named this month are the economy in general (28%), unemployment (26%), the federal deficit or debt (13%), gas prices (6%), and lack of money (4%). The top non-economic problems are dissatisfaction with the nation's government or leaders (11%), healthcare (9%), wars (5%), education (4%), and ethical/moral decline (3%).
Despite the political turmoil in the Middle East, including uprisings in Egypt and Libya, no more than 1% of Americans mention any of these issues as the country's most important problem.
Complete results can be found in the Survey Methods section at the end of this story.
Unemployment Mentions Down; Deficit Up
The current percentage specifically mentioning unemployment and jobs is down to 26% from 35% in February -- which was the highest percentage naming that issue since 1983 -- and now roughly matches December and January levels. This month's decline could reflect the government's positive February jobs report, which came out while the survey was in the field. However, mentions of unemployment as the most important problem have fluctuated over the past year and could easily rise again in future reports.
The 28% who currently mention the economy in general is down from 35% in October, but similar to most monthly readings since late 2009. Prior to that, Gallup documented a roughly two-year stretch from late 2007 through 2009 when the economy in general was Americans' paramount economic concern.
Mentions of the federal deficit/federal debt have inched up since October, and at 13% are the highest Gallup has recorded in over a decade, no doubt reflecting the debate on Capitol Hill over the size of the federal debt and whether various budget proposals are doing enough to cut deficit spending.
Americans Slow to React to Rising Gas Prices
The increase in mentions of gas prices over the past month, from 1% to 6%, corresponds with surging gas pump prices over the same period, now averaging $3.52 nationally. Still, this five-point gain is a rather subdued reaction relative to the last time the average gas price was in this range.
Three weeks after gas prices exceeded the $3.50 mark in April 2008 -- at that time a record high -- Gallup found 17% of Americans citing gas/fuel prices as the nation's top problem. Concern rose to 25% as pump prices first topped $4 in June of that year. However, as prices descended from August through October, public concern quickly dissipated. Only 7% mentioned the issue in September 2008, when prices were back to $3.69. Gallup saw a similar pattern as gas flirted with the $3 threshold in 2006.
In other words, certain price points at the pump appear to be alarming to consumers only when they're a novelty, and when prices are on the way up, not when they're coming down.
Economic concerns continue to weigh heavily on Americans' minds, as evidenced by the issues Americans consider to be the nation's most important problem. The economy in general and unemployment dominate their economically oriented responses, but mentions of the federal budget deficit and gas prices are up.
Gallup's "most important problem" trends suggest that Americans' top-of-mind concern about gas prices will continue to mount as prices edge higher, but isn't likely to surge above 20% until prices set a new record, which would be something over $4.11.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 3-6, 2011, with a random sample of 1,021 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 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 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.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.