More News from Surveyland

It is time to make another visit to the bounty of information that our nations’ intrepid polling companies gather for our enjoyment. I usually start these visits with a short proviso about how survey data about what people say to strangers who call them on the phone can’t hold Hungarian Telephone a candle to data about what people actually do. Often I point out that survey respondents tend to be neither candid nor thoughtful in their responses.

Today I am going to skip all that. I will just give examples.

The Rich are Optimistic?

On July 12 Gallup found that Upper-Income Americans See Living Standards Improving. Depending on your outlook, that might have given you a sense of second order optimism, after all, those rich folks must know more than the rest of us, or perhaps bitterness of the-rich-just-get-richer sort.

In either case the feeling was likely short-lived because four days later The New York Times carried the front page headline Wealthy Reduce Buying in a Blow to the Recovery. The Times story was largely a compilation of anecdotes and quotes from assorted “analysts” who like to see their names in print. But the gist was that rich folks are pessimistic enough about the future to cut back on spending.

This is partially an example of the clash between what people tell pollsters and what they really do. But mostly it is an example of manufactured news. The Gallup data does show that upper-income Americans became more optimistic in June, but that is not notably out of step with Americans in general, who have been getting more optimistic for a year and a half now. Upper-income folks, those earning more than $90K, are incrementally more optimistic than others, but this is a fairly consistent and not altogether surprising phenomenon. And the Times piece is really nothing more than an attempt to project a narrative on inconclusive tea leaves.


Speaking of leaves, last October I foolishly predicted the future by saying that California would vote for full frontal legalization of marijuana this fall. The question is on the ballot, but current polling shows it as a toss up and the no side is better funded and has the support of all the California politicians I can name.

But the polling may be a little misleading. Nationally, 55% of Americans oppose “the complete legalization of the use of marijuana” and oppose “legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal [non-medical] use.” That’s down significantly from ten years ago, but it is still a clear majority against.

And yet, the same AP-CNBC poll that gave us the 55% against number says that 56% of Americans believe that regulations for marijuana should be the same as or less strict than those for alcohol. Hmm. Perhaps the meaning of the word “legalize” is confusing people. If the proposition fails in November, I think the pro-pot camp should try again next year. Only this time, the proposal should be to “regulate” it.


An outfit called Country Financial sponsored a poll that found that only 64% of Americans believe that college is a good financial investment. I am sympathetic to that view, although it is probably not true on average. Mostly, my objection is that although it may be a good investment, it is for all the wrong reasons.

But the big news is that 64% is sharply lower than the same poll found a year previously. (80% thought it was a good investment in 2009 and 81% thought so in 2008.) A person might reflexively blame hard times for the shift, but remember that the Great Recession was in full fury in the spring of 2009. If anything, you would expect people to be more optimistic about long-term investments a year later.

Somehow, under the radar, there seems to have been a significant shift in attitudes towards a major American institution. Then again, as WalletPop pointed out as I was writing this post, college enrollment is up.

Social Security

I think I was in college when some clever person worked out that more people my age believed in UFOs than believed that they would someday get Social Security payments. Since then, asking Americans if they though that Social Security would “be there” when they retired has been a polling cliché and a source of periodic media reports.

The latest round of silliness is from Gallup, which found that 60% of non-retired adults answered no to the question “Do you think that the Social Security system will be able to pay you a benefit when you retire?” That was up from 50% in 2005, the last time Gallup asked.

Unsurprisingly, the answers were heavily skewed by age. 76% of those under 34 thought they not would get a benefit in retirement. Of course, retirement is a long way off for those kids. They probably also think that by then they will be driving solar powered hovercraft.

But fully 26% of those over 55 told the pollster that they thought they would get nothing. Seriously? The youngest in that group are only seven years from being eligible for benefits and a significant portion of the group are old enough that they are eligible right now.

As far as I know, no elected official has ever suggested that Social Security should not be paid to today’s younger workers. And it is nearly inconceivable that it would even be discussed as a possibility for those now over 55.

Being the kind of guy that I am, my first instinct is to seek out the 1 in 4 older workers who don’t think Social Security will be there and offer them a lump sum in exchange for any Social Security checks to which they may in the future be entitled.

But on reflection, I realize I would have very few takers. People do not really think that they will never see any Social Security money, it is just something they tell pollsters. It could be because it is an amusingly catty thing to say, or perhaps because have heard the cliché and think it is the “right” answer to give.

Whatever the reason, when pollsters get down to practical details it is clear that 60% do not truly expect to be stiffed by Uncle Sam. A few months previously Gallup found that 34% of non-retirees expected Social Security to be a “major source” of income in retirement. That is slightly less than the 36% who answered that they expected to get Social Security at all. But it is very hard to believe that practically nobody expects both that they will get the checks but that it won’t be a major source of retirement income.

Moreover, in the same five years that the percentage of those claiming to expect nothing climbed from 50% to 60%, the percent of those counting on it as a major source of income also rose from 28% to 34%.

I couldn’t find Gallup data on UFOs, but in 2005 they found that only 24% of Americans believed that the Earth had ever been visited by extraterrestrial beings.


  • By Coley, July 30, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    I agree with your conclusions. Many people answering a surveyor’s question “Do you expect to receive Social Security when you retire?” are, in the backs of their heads, thinking “What they’re really digging for here is do I think the current Administration and Congress are doing a good job? If I answer “No” then my opinion on that matter will be heard and published on [FOX/CNBC].”

    I would be willing to bet a significant amount of money that if a survey group asked the same question of the same people, once during a period of Republican control and once during a period of Democratic control, many of the respondents would switch sides.

    One also can’t neglect the fact that surveys are more likely to be answered by people who “have something to say.” Moderate-centrists are “too busy getting dinner on the table for Heaven’s sake.”

    And I imagine that an ever-growing problem for those who conduct surveys is that they typically only call land-lines, correct?

  • By Coley, July 30, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    And I meant “MSNBC.”

  • By jim, July 30, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

    73% of Americans don’t have a basic understanding of how Social Security operates. (I made that number up)

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