The number of suburbanites who say they are better off than they were in 2008 is on the rise, but their finances remain weak, and their confidence in local police and public schools is slipping, a new National Suburban Poll has found.
About a third (34%) of suburbanites say they are better off financially than they were at the start of the recession in 2008, up from 28 percent in 2012. But more than half – 55 percent – rate their overall personal finances as weak, and 41 percent say they live paycheck to paycheck most of the time, according to the results of the eighth poll for the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University®.
These findings set the political, social and economic backdrop for this year’s contentious House and Senate elections, in which the nation’s most reliable swing voters – suburbanites – remain up for grabs amid increasing polarization and lingering unease about the economic recovery.
“For almost a generation, the “swing” suburbs have decided national elections, and this year should be no different,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies. “The parties and candidates that best understand these relatively moderate, independent voters have the best chance of controlling the national agenda. The National Suburban Poll provides key insights into how these pivotal voters are thinking and feeling about the issues most affecting their daily lives.”
In U.S. House races, 42 percent of suburban registered voters say they will vote for the Democratic candidate and 41 percent say they will vote the Republican candidate. But in a clear indication of dissatisfaction for the political system and the choice they face in the fall, one in five suburban independents (20%) say they do not know whom they will vote for.
And while suburban confidence in the federal government is up slightly, faith in local government, particularly among minorities, has dropped. Overall suburban confidence in local police fell 8 points, from 86 to 78 percent between 2008 and 2014, the poll found.
That drop is nearly double – 14 percent – among suburban minorities. African-Americans, in both suburbs and cities, were less likely than other groups to have faith in local police, with just 59 percent expressing confidence, the poll found. (The National Suburban Poll was conducted before the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., sparked by the shooting death of a black teenager by police).
“Many minority suburbanites, especially African Americans, have lost faith in their local police departments. But the problems are much broader,” said Dr. Christopher Niedt, a professor of sociology and academic director of the National Center for Suburban Studies. “Minority suburbanites also report that poor-quality local schools and a lack of local job opportunities are big problems in their community. So policing is only one part of a broader pattern f inequality that keeps minority suburban communities from benefitting from the nation’s slow economic recovery.”
As the protests in Ferguson showed, those conditions have consequences, Levy said.
“New immigrants and other minorities are literally and figuratively changing the face of the American suburbs,” he said. “More and more suburban communities are heavily minority, and how these new residents view themselves, their neighbors and especially local authorities could be the difference between social and economic progress and Ferguson-like violence.”
The Eighth National Suburban Poll oversampled adults living in suburban areas of the country. The previous polls were conducted in September 2008, October 2008, October 2009, September 2010, September 2011, November 2011 and June 2012 and October 2012. The survey is based on phone interviews in English and Spanish with 1,546 adults from July 21-August 7, 2014. The margin for error for the total sample is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. For suburbanites, the margin of error is 4.9 percent. The poll was designed and executed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI).
Among the other findings:
- Forty-seven percent of suburbanites say the quality of their public schools is a problem, compared to 37 percent in 2010.
- More suburban residents than ever – 64 percent – say crime, drugs and violence are at least a small problem where they live – the largest number since the National Suburban Poll began in 2008.
- While confidence in the federal government is at 49 percent among suburbanites, up two points from 2012, President Obama’s approval rating has dipped to 39 percent, down from 45 percent in 2012.
- For the first time, gay marriage has the support of a plurality of suburbanites, driven largely by suburban Millennials and Generation X-ers.
- The economic health of suburban residents has improved since 2008, but remains essentially unchanged since 2012, with 41 percent saying their personal finances are excellent or good, compared to 43 percent two years ago.
- Home prices in the suburbs are dramatically improved from 2010: 53 percent of suburbanites say home prices in their neighborhood have gone up over the past year, compared to only 23 percent in 2010.