The deep recession has had a profound effect on virtually every segment of the country’s population. But if there is an epicenter of financial stress and frustration, it is among whites without college degrees.
By many measures, this politically sensitive group has emerged from the recession with a particularly dark view of the economy and the financial future. Whites without college degrees also are the most apt to blame Washington for the problems, and are exceedingly harsh in their judgment of the Obama administration and its economic policies.
These findings come from a new national survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The numbers represent a fresh look at the effects of the long recession on all Americans, but particularly “non-college whites,” a group of long-fought-over voters often considered a bellwether of the political ramifications of economic woes.
A mere 10 percent of whites without college degrees say they are satisfied with the nation’s current economic situation. Most — 56 percent — say the country’s best days are in the past, and more, 61 percent, say it will be a long time before the economy begins to recover.
Fully 43 percent of non-college whites say “hard work and determination are no guarantees of success,” and nearly half doubt that they have enough education and skills to compete in the job market.
Not everything is bleak in this group’s outlook, according to the survey. Nearly seven in 10 say they are mostly optimistic about their future, although that is somewhat lower than for whites with college degrees, and for most other groups in the population. More than six in 10 report feeling at least somewhat secure financially.
The survey also found differences in the outlooks of younger and older whites without college degrees. Those younger than 50 were more optimistic about the future than were those older than 50 and were somewhat less pessimistic about how long it will take the economy to recover.
The contrast between assessments of their own financial positions and those of the country stems in part from the political orientation of non-college whites, and potential policy disagreements with a Democratic administration. Fully half of all whites without college degrees identify as Republicans or are GOP-leaning independents, and 42 percent call themselves conservatives, more than other groups.
Overall, non-college whites represent a declining share of the electorate, but in 2008 they still accounted for about one-third of all Democratic primary voters and nearly 40 percent of all voters in the general election.
President Obama has struggled to appeal to these voters. In both the Democratic primary fight and in the 2008 general election, he did far better among college-educated whites than among those without a four-year degree.
In the 2008 nomination battle, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) outpolled Obama among whites without college degrees by 2 to 1 across primaries that had exit polls. In the general election, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican nominee, captured 58 percent of the white, non-college vote compared with Obama’s 40 percent (about matching George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection victory margin over Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts).
Based on the new Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey, fresh indicators show that Obama may again face difficulties corralling these voters in 2012. Whites without college degrees are deeply pessimistic about his policies and are more inclined to trust Republicans than Democrats on key economic issues.
Just 14 percent of non-college whites say the president’s economic policies are making things better, half the number of white college graduates saying so. Only 15 percent say they are getting ahead financially, again about half the number among white college graduates.
About six in 10 say the Obama administration is doing “too little” to look after the economic interests of their families, and not enough for the middle class and for small businesses. Nearly half say the administration is doing “too much” for wealthy Americans.
Historically, Democrats have claimed to speak for voters with less education and lower incomes, but it is clear that many of those voters no longer think the party speaks for them. The new survey confirms the depth of the Democrats’ challenges with whites in these categories: When asked which party better understands the economic problems that people in the country are having, non-college whites side with the Republicans by a 14-point margin.
The poll was conducted Jan. 27-Feb. 9 among a random national sample of 1,959 adults, including users of conventional and cellular phones. Interviews were conducted with 501 white people without college degrees; the margin of sampling error for this group is plus or minus five percentage points.
Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.