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News Release | American Values Survey Finds Troubled Electorate: 7 in 10 Believe U.S. in Recession, Most Say America’s Best Days are in the Past

[11.17.2015]

Rising concern over racial tensions, crime, and immigration

WASHINGTON – With less than one year to go until the 2016 general election, the mood of the American people is marked by anxiety and mistrust: more than seven in ten (72 percent) believe that the country is still in a recession, unchanged from 2014. Americans are more divided today than in the past on whether America’s best days are ahead of us or behind us (49 percent vs. 49 percent). This pessimism is reflected in elevated concerns about crime, racial tensions, and immigration.

The nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted the 2015 American Values Survey among 2,695 Americans between September 11 and October 4, 2015. The sixth annual AVS measures public opinion about the economy, racial discrimination, the criminal justice system, trust in public institutions, perception of the Tea Party, the relationship between religious affiliation and political attitudes, views of immigrants, and how demographic changes impact the cultural landscape in the country.

Pessimism About America’s Future and Anxiety About Cultural Change

“Americans are increasingly uncertain about the country’s future, while nostalgia for the 1950s is widely felt among some segments of the electorate,” said Dr. Dan Cox, research director of PRRI. “Feelings of anxiety and pessimism are notable among white Americans – but are especially pronounced among white evangelical Protestants and members of the Tea Party.”

Americans are divided over whether America’s best days are ahead of us or behind us—a marked shift since 2012, when 54 percent of Americans said our best days were in the future and fewer than four in ten (38 percent) disagreed. Members of the Tea Party are the most pessimistic group. Only 33 percent of Tea Party members say that the country’s best days lie ahead, while 65 percent say they are in the past.

Racial Tensions, Criminal Justice, and “Reverse Discrimination”

The number of Americans who say that racial tensions are a major concern in their community has risen dramatically since 2012, jumping 18 points, from 17 percent to 35 percent. At the same time, concern about crime as a major problem has risen from 33 percent to 48 percent.

Reactions to the recent killings of African American men by police vary widely. Fifty-three percent of the public believes that the killings are isolated incidents rather than part of a broader pattern (44 percent). Approximately two-thirds (65 percent) of white Americans say that killings are isolated incidents, while only 15 percent of black Americans say the same. More than eight in ten (81 percent) black Americans say that the recent killings are part of a broader trend of how police treat African Americans.

“While religious leaders have mobilized in the last year to talk about police violence, discrimination, and racial inequality, these efforts have had little measurable impact in the pews,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “White Christians across denominational families are far less likely than black Christians to perceive that there is even a problem.”

White Christians are more likely than members of other religious groups – or whites as a whole – to say that the recent killings are not part of a broader pattern. More than seven in ten white evangelical Protestants (72 percent), white mainline Protestants (73 percent), and white Catholics (71 percent) believe that the killings of African American men by police are isolated incidents.

At the same time, many (43 percent) Americans say that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, while 55 percent disagree. Half (50 percent) of white Americans—including 60 percent of white working-class Americans—agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, while fewer than three in ten Hispanic (29 percent) and black Americans (25 percent) agree.

Wariness of Immigrants and Islam

Compared to a few years ago, Americans report less tolerance when encountering non-English speaking immigrants. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans agree that they are bothered when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English, compared to 40 percent in 2012. More than six in ten (63 percent) white working-class Americans say they feel bothered when they come into contact with immigrants who do not speak English, compared to 43 percent of white college-educated Americans.

In the political arena, none are more concerned about immigration than supporters of Donald Trump, 73 percent of whom say they are bothered by encounters with immigrants who speak little English. Nearly seven in ten (69 percent) Trump supporters rate immigration as a critical issue to them personally, compared to only half (50 percent) of the supporters of other Republican candidates.

Perceptions of Islam have turned more negative over the past few years. Today, a majority (56 percent) of Americans agree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life, while roughly four in ten (41 percent) disagree. Opinion on Islam’s compatibility with American values varies greatly by religion. Seventy-three percent of white evangelical Protestants believe Islam is at odds with American values, compared with 63 percent of white mainline Protestants, 55 percent of black Protestants, 61 percent of Catholics and 41 percent of the religiously unaffiliated. In 2011, Americans were divided in their views of Islam (47 percent agreed, 48 percent disagreed).

Inequality, Minimum Wage, and Workplace Policies

Concerns about economic opportunity have spiked in recent years. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans believe that “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life,” while fewer than three in ten (28 percent) believe that “it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.” In 2010, 53% of the public said that one of the big problems in the U.S. was the lack of equal opportunities for all.

More than three-quarters (76 percent) of Americans support raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. Support has ticked up significantly since 2014, when 69 percent of Americans expressed support for such an increase. Nearly six in ten (59 percent) Americans express support for raising the minimum wage even higher—to $15 per hour—but there is less agreement across political party lines for the larger wage hike. Roughly equal numbers of Democrats favor raising the minimum wage to either $10.10 or $15 (91 percent vs. 84 percent, respectively). In contrast, while 60 percent of Republicans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10, only 32 percent say that they favor raising it to $15 an hour.

Americans also overwhelmingly support requiring companies to provide all full-time employees with paid sick days if they or an immediate family member gets sick (85 percent), and requiring companies to provide all full-time employees with paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child (82 percent).

Low Confidence in Major Institutions

There is a wide disparity in confidence of different major institutions in the country. While majorities of the public report having a great deal or some confidence in the police (75 percent), the criminal justice system (62 percent), and organized religion (55 percent), no more than half say they have a great deal or some confidence in the federal government (50 percent), news organizations (47 percent), and large business corporations (46 percent).

Few Americans say the government looks out for their interests. Only about four in ten (42 percent) say the government looks out for the needs and interests of people like them either somewhat or very well. Notably, seniors (age 65 and older) are the only major demographic group in which a majority (55 percent) believes that the government looks out for their needs and interests at least somewhat well.

The topline questionnaire, full methodology, as well as additional findings and analysis, can be found here: http://publicreligion.org/research/2015/11/survey-anxiety-nostalgia-and-mistrust-findings-from-the-2015-american-values-survey/.

Methodology

The survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute. The survey was made possible by generous grants from the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish between September 11 and October 4, 2015 among a random sample of 2,695 U.S. adults (age 18 and up). Interviews were conducted both online and by telephone. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.6 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence.

Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.