The Common Perception of Life Getting Worse

A 2009 nationwide poll asked Americans the following question: "I'd like you to compare the way things are going in the United States to the way they were going five years ago. Generally, would you say things are going better today, worse today, or about the same today as they were going five years ago?" Do you want to guess how many of the respondents thought things are getting worse? A full 83%! Only 5% thought that things were better. That's right: For every one American who thinks that things are getting better, sixteen think they are getting worse.

Another survey question makes the same point. Since 1971, surveys have asked Americans, "Do you feel things in this country are generally going in the right direction, or do you feel things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?" Now, I like to draw pictures of data, so I have summarized the results of these surveys in Figure 1.1. When this question was asked in 2010, 66% of respondents viewed the country as on the wrong track; only 34% thought we were headed in the right direction. This pessimism is rather typical, for as you can see in Figure 1.1, over most of the last forty years, a majority of Americans have viewed our country as on the wrong track in most years. In only nine years did more respondents say America was headed in the right direction. Overall, about two Americans think that we're on the wrong track for every one who thinks we're going in the right direction. Just a thought, but if we've been on the wrong track for forty years, shouldn't we have arrived in a really bad place already?

Americans aren't just down about our nation as a whole; we're concerned with just about every aspect of it. A 1996 survey asked respondents if they thought the United States was declining or improving in each of fourteen different areas spanning public life, including moral standards, the criminal justice system, public safety, family life, national leaders, Americans' honesty, Americans' work ethic, the health care system, education, our standard of living, the economy, and racial issues. With each one of these issues, about one-quarter to one-half of Americans thought the nation was "holding steady." Among the respondents who perceived any type of change, however, it was overwhelmingly negative. For every respondent who thought that moral and ethical standards were improving, almost twelve thought they were in decline. For every respondent who thought that the criminal justice system was improving, eight thought it was in decline. The ratio was 1:4 for standard of living and 1:3 for racial tensions.

Even when things are objectively getting better, we still think they are getting worse. A 2003 study by the children's advocacy group Child Trends illustrates our propensity for unwarranted pessimism. Child Trends wanted to gauge the accuracy of Americans' perceptions of children's well-being. They found that Americans think young people are far worse off than they really are. For example, three-quarters of the Americans surveyed thought the number of children on welfare had increased or remained steady in the previous decade, but in reality it had declined. Ninety percent thought that crime rates among teens had gone up or stayed the same, but those too had decreased. In fact, at the time of the survey, they were at a twenty-five-year low! Likewise, Americans are overly pessimistic about young people's poverty, lack of health insurance, and teenage birth rate. The authors concluded, "Most Americans think that things are getting worse for children and youth, even when notable improvements have occurred." Of course the United States has children living in difficult circumstances, but it isn't as prevalent as we seem to think.