One of the deepest worries Americans have about the period they are living through is the extent to which they feel they are forced to go into debt in order to meet the press of inflation.
A substantial 77 percent of the nation's households report they owe money, up dramatically from 54 percent in 1971. Simply put, living in debt has become part of the American way of life. Among those who owe money, a 58 percent majority expresses real worry about their debts.
Recently, when asked what they would do if they unexpectedly received $5,000, a substantial 39 percent said they would use some of the money to pay off bills and debts, and 60 percent said they would put the money into a savings account.
Significantly, most Americans do not feel their current state of indebtedness is the result of extravagant buying sprees. A high 70 percent say they have had to put off buying luxuries and a 53 percent majority reports having to put off buying certain essential products and services.
A kind of bottom line to the financial condition of many Americans is the fact that 35 percent now report they are finding it "harder to make ends meet" this year compared with last year. Only 8 percent report it is easier this year, and 36 percent feel there has been little change over the past 12 months.
Significantly substantial numbers among all income groups feel it is getting harder to make ends meet. Among those whose incomes are under $5,000 annually - that is, below the poverty line - 68 percent say they cannot live within their family budget.
Among the more affluent groups with incomes ranging from $15,000 to $25,000, a 51 percent majority feels it is more difficult now than a year ago to make ends meet.
"This condition also is reported by 46 percent of the families with incomes of more thn $25,000. More affluent people are no longer convinced that earning a higher income will allow them to weather the inflationary storm.
These results of a recent Harris Survey of 1,201 adults nationwide bear out two central conclusions that have emerged from other recent Harris Surveys:
There is a deep-seated conviction in American that in a time of sustained inflation, there are few winners and many lossers.
Politically, neither party seems to be able to capitalize on this public malaise over high prices.
In 1978, people are hurting badly from inflation, but somehow the Republicans have not been able to make political capital out of the situation, and GOP prospects for wide-scale off-year gains have dimmed.
For their part, the Democrats are using their traditional appeal of being the party to trust in economic hard times, whether he dominan problem is unemployment or inflation. In the absence of a real Republican challenge, the Democrats have at least neutralized inflation as an issue right now.