Most Americans do not see unemployment as a burning social problem, but a significant number of them feel the government ought to provide a job for everyone who wants to work, a new national survey shows.
Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, who released the government-sponsored survey yesterday, called it "virtually the first full-scale assessment of the public's attitudes" toward unemployment and government programs to reduce it.
"Some of the findings are highly significant," he said. "Despite the public attention captured by Proposition 13, there is strong support for government efforts, particularly public service jobs, to reduce unemployment."
Another finding, which Marshall called "sobering" and the survey report called "alarming," was that "the public feels things are not going to get any better" in the next five years.
That response came when people were asked to assess the general well-being of the nation but were not given any definitions of what that meant.
They also replied that they felt the United States is not as well off today as it was five years ago. "This sense of backward movement for the nation is not new. It has been picked up in these ratings since 1971," the report said. "What is new, however, and alarming is . . . that . . . the public feels things are not going to get any better in the future."
"It is the first time . . . that the U.S. public has not looked toward some improvement in the future," the report said.
"My own view is that this indicates a growing awareness by the public of the difficult problems this country faces," Marshall said at a news briefing on the report Friday. "This points up the immense responsibility we in government have to attempt [to find] solutions to these very difficult problems."
The $85,000 study was prepared by Public Research Inc., a nonprofit organization here, from 2,009 interviews conducted by the Roper Organization between June 16 and 24, just after California voters had overwhelmingly passed the tax-slashing Proposition 13.
In several ways the survey found that Americans are hardly consumed with the unemployment issue. For instance, only 16 percent said it was a primary concern to them, 41 percent said it was a secondary concern, and for 43 percent it was of little concern.
Measured another way, unemployment ranked fifth in importance as a national problem. Higher ratings went to inflation, crime, the tax burden and rising costs of hospital and health care. Lower ratings went to energy, problems of the elderly, declining quality of education, water and air pollution, minority problems and housing for the poor.
In listing anxieties for the future, those interviewed put fear of inflation and of an inadequate standard of living above their fear of being out of a job. But in listing their hopes for the nation, they put solving the unemployment problem as second only to ending inflation and higher than achieving peace, lowering taxes and cutting crime.
Marshall said he felt unemployment received "a relatively high ranking" as a national concern "given the fact that very few people themselves experience unemployment." He added that "everyone experience inflation."
The secretary noted that the jobless rate has been hovering around 6 percent this year, in contrast to three years ago, it was approaching 9 percent.
The survey also found that a substantial number of people have serious misgivings about the unemployed: 57 percent said that "welfare and unemployment benefits are so good people don't have to work" when asked to give reasons for high levels of unemployment.
That reason was singled out most frequently even by those who are often out of work.
Among other reasons given for high joblessness were that many lack basic skills; foreign competition cuts the number of jobs in this country; more women and young people are seeking work and illegal aliens are taking jobs away.
Most whites do not feel discrimination is a barrier to employment, but one in three blacks say that it is.
Asked if the federal government "has a responsibility to see that every American who wants to work can have a job - even by providing public-service jobs if necessary," 47 percent said yes, 43 percent said no, 8 percent gave qualified answers and 3 percent had no opinion. (Because of rounding, the figures exceeded 100 percent.)