BOOM OR BUST
NOVEMBER 24, 1995
Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses consumer anxiety with Andy Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. The Center's newest survey found worrying about money is on the increase.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you for being with us, Mr. Kohut.
ANDREW KOHUT: Happy to be here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So we've just seen these two different visions of the economy, one that sees the changes as producing more inequality and less security, one that sees the changes as producing more opportunity, even for those who are less educated. What are you finding in your polling?
MR. KOHUT: Well, what we're finding is just a lot more worry. Before every national election, a year before, we not only ask political questions, we ask people about their own lives. We ask them how satisfied they are with various elements of their lives and how worried they are about various financial concerns. And, across-the-board, the biggest change in this poll is a higher percentage of people saying that they're worried about things like paying for health care costs, affording, meeting the responsibilities to their children, whether it's making sure that they have enough money to put them through college, or that their kids are going to have good jobs waiting for them. And people are worried about retirement, and they're very worried, even despite the fact that we're in an economic boom era, a boom era here, and not a recession time; people are worried about their wages being cut, and they're even beginning to worry about unemployment again.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And comparing this to polls that you've done over the past say ten years, this is really a significant increase in worry?
MR. KOHUT: A significant increase over the long-term, but much higher levels of worry than a year ago, and a year ago people weren't--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you explain this?
MR. KOHUT: Well, I think it's a combination of things. But, first of all, the economic recovery hasn't come home to people. This has been a pink slip recovery, i.e., good economic news about IBM's profits or the macroeconomic reports are all juxtaposed with reports about layoffs and, and things that don't--that make people feel insecure about their own futures and think that big companies and affluent people are doing well, and they're not. And the second impact here is clearly the budget debate has scared many Americans. People are worried about the things that are being talked about in Washington, paying for health care costs, having enough money to retire, and putting their kids through college.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the argument, George Gilder made this argument in the story there, the piece, that pollsters are not quite getting the point, that the economy is improving, that the changes in the economy are providing all kinds of new jobs, but that it's not showing up in the polls for some reason?
MR. KOHUT: That's because it's not showing up in people's pocket books. Tell that to someone who earns $40,000 a year and has four--a couple of children, trying to balance, trying to balance their own personal budget. Gilder is a technological champion of technology, if not a cheerleader for the technology, and in the long run, he may be right, but it hasn't, hasn't gotten through to many people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about the argument that these may be not economic questions that are upsetting people but more social questions, or what he calls moral, I think he used the word "moral concerns" or something like that, moral problems, in other words, you feel more vulnerable because you know, you don't feel safe in your city, your income may be the same, but you don't feel safe, or you don't like the public schools, or something like that.
MR. KOHUT: Well, there's some of that too. There's some--that's true-the moral crisis--concerns about moral questions run right across the gamut of, of the political spectrum in this poll. But, nonetheless, there is real economic anxiety out there, and it's very hard to--very hard to ignore and say, well, that doesn't really exist, because there's so much consistency in what these polls show about people's anxiety.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Give us some examples. You break your polling up into different kinds of groups. Let's start with some of the worries that seem to go right across all the groups. What would those be?
MR. KOHUT: Well, people are much more concerned about health care costs. One in five worrying, saying what's wrong with this country is that health care costs are out of control, and a percentage of people saying that they worry about meeting their health care obligations or the costs of health care has risen from 50 percent a year ago to 64 percent. That's a big, big jump.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let's stop right there just for a minute with health care.
MR. KOHUT: Okay.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that that's because all of the discussion about health care over the past year, the Clinton plan and now the new debates in Congress, have made people much more wary of health care issues?
MR. KOHUT: I think the Medicare debate and the Medicaid, Medicaid less than Medicare, scared people, and also I think that companies are increasingly over the year, over the past few years, cutting back on how much insurance they're paying for, but the cumulative effect is, is intensified by what's the debate here in Washington. People have heard what's going on in Washington and it scares them. And what's interesting about this poll is it's not only poor people and lower income people, lower middle income people, who are worried. The great increases in worries have come among college-educated people, upper middle income people, people who typically vote Republican or at minimum are independents, not, not the traditional Democratic groups.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That are worried about health care.
MR. KOHUT: Health care and a whole range of costs.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think the political consequences or how do you translate the concern over certain aspects of these, of people's life, their economic life? How does that affect politics, do you think?
MR. KOHUT: Well, I think what's happened is that the worries about the budget debate and the blame being placed on the Republicans have turned off independent voters, and only 20 percent of independents approve of GOP policies, back at--right after the November election a year ago, 55/60 percent said they approved of what the GOP planned to do. Obviously, Democrats disapprove. The Democratic coalition has come together. Democrats are energized. They feel that a lot of the issues that they worry about, are concerned about, education, the environment, are at stake, and they're more interested in this election than they were four years ago when the--in the '92--when they looked ahead to the '92 election. On the Republican side, what's really interesting is we see less Republican unity than Democratic unity, and that's unusual, because generally, Republicans have their act together to a far greater extent than the Democrats. But now the Republican Party, it's a bigger, more heterogeneous party, and the social conservatives, who are less affluent than the economic conservatives, and don't have that economic ideology to sustain them through this debate are approving of GOP policies at much lower rates than the economic conservatives. And that's the problem with Republicans. And, by the way, Bill Clinton's approval ratings never went up with the economic recovery, and this was the first time in, in--since I've been doing polling, which is a long time, where there hasn't been a political recovery accompanying an economic recovery, and that's because of this anxiety factor. And it's worse today than it's been.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you very much for being with us.
MR. LEHRER: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight, political analysis and a Gergen dialogue.