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Economy Project
The New American Economy - Full Report
Tuesday, July 30 2013
Download this file (dcor.emp.memo.073013.web.pdf)Memo[July 2013 Full Report]768 Kb

“How do these jobs stack up to the cost of living?”

Americans are living in a new economy—one in which jobs do not pay enough to live on what they used to—and barley keep up with prices at the grocery store, student loan payments, and childcare expenses. Voters have moved to a post-recession understanding of how pay and prices balance out in their household budgets. Because their understanding of the economy is no longer situated in the temporary reductions of the recession but a seemingly permanent assessment about jobs, they now have very different assumptions about life chances, opportunity, income, and equity.

Read more... [The New American Economy - Full Report]
The New American Economy
Monday, July 01 2013
Download this file (dcor emp fg memo 071013 final.pdf)Memo[ ]537 Kb
Download this file ([June 2013 Economy Focus Group Presentation]978 Kb

There are emerging perceptions and understandings about how the economy now operates that can be fairly described as a New American Economy – with very different assumptions about life chances and equity.  These conclusions are very tentative, based on two working class groups in Columbus, Ohio, and two groups in Orlando with young college women and Latino voters.  This is the summary of a longer report, which we will distribute soon, but we wanted to circulate this material now. 

The New Economy: 5 Tenets

1. People believe that American jobs have been fundamentally restructured to pay less; America is producing jobs “you can’t live off.”

  • This may be the biggest change in the perception of the economy and it dominates all other reactions. In the past, people talked about jobs paying “less” as a consequence of the Great Recession, but this change in the character of jobs is just given.
  • When they heard reports of the new jobs being created, the discussion was totally about what those jobs pay: they have had to replace “one career job” with two or more “disposable jobs”; “you have to work twice as hard to make half as much as you used to”; “how do these jobs stack up to the cost of living?”
  • Sacrifice has become part of the routine: “After we pay our bills we make sure that our children eat but there’s times my husband and I can’t afford it and we eat peanut butter, potatoes, or rice. We make sure our children are eating 4 food groups but we can’t.”
  • Because jobs don’t allow you to make ends meet, you have to cobble together several jobs to make a full time income; two jobs may not be enough, so one parent must work two jobs while the other works one job and cares for children.
  • The pay leaves them on the edge: one woman says, “I can’t afford to lose right now” because she is right at the edge.

2. People sense there is a macro recovery under way and things are getting better. However, they universally describe the economy as “uncertain” and their feelings as “concerned” and “worried.”

  • People know of others who have gotten jobs or sold a house, and they have heard credible reports of the economy improving. That produces less anger in reaction to elites over-interpreting positive economic news, like the monthly jobs number.
  • Nonetheless, the improvements have not reached them yet, which leads to this kind of qualifier: “the housing market is supposed to be on an upswing again.”; “you want to be optimistic for the future.”
  • Their first reactions to the economy included these terms: “pretty scary”; “worried”; “concerned” ;“not good” ;“it’s starting to balance out a bit, but we never know…it’s a roller coaster.”

3. They have restructured their households and families to deal with this new economy, which feels permanent, not just an adaptation during the Great Recession.

  • People talk about working full or part-time in retirement or postponing retirement.
  • More people have moved in with family members, sharing intergenerational housing. This includes parents taking in adult children, but also 20-somethings taking in their parents who have lost jobs or fallen on hard times.
  • Couponing and penny-pinching is given, but there is also some talk about neighbors sharing big-ticket necessities like lawn mowers that are difficult for one family to afford.

4. With their households on the edge, they are consumed by the costs of childcare and student debt. Both of these reactions seem to have a new intensity – from women moving totally into the labor force as jobs pay less and as young people have turned to college as an economic strategy.

  • Childcare: “[childcare is] more than my mortgage payment but I can’t not do it because the money that I bring in pays for electricity and food…it’s…just a complete vicious circle.”; “If we want…to keep the American Dream alive and have a middle class America then we have to do something to make child care more affordable.”
  • Working just to pay off student debt: “You are working just to pay off your student loans so it’s almost, it’s a double edged sword. ”; “That’s paying your bills. That’s paying your rent… you’re never getting ahead.”; “I’m working as a bartender not by choice… I make more money doing that than any position I could get in my degree so I pay my student loans as a bartender.”

5. They have downsized and adapted their expectations for a good economy – now just means having “a few extra dollars after payday.”

  • The new signs of an improving economy are humble. They say they will know they are doing better when they are “able to save more” or get “yearly pay raises” or when “I can pay my bills.”
  • They describe the job and income situation as a “serious problem,” not a “crisis” – suggesting they have adapted to the new economy.
  • They refuse to give up on the American Dream, but there are few rags to riches discussions.



1. Education has become more important in this new economy – as a personal strategy and as a macro strategy to produce a stronger economy. This includes investing in math and science education, job training, and making education more affordable.

  • There was near universal agreement that education is the most important investment we can make in our economy: “Without technology and education we’re doomed. We have to increase those.”; “I think our children are our future, they need to be smart and well educated for our country to get better.”; “I feel like if they… put more money into education, that it will benefit the country as a whole more. We’ll be able to compete more for jobs with other countries.”
  • This is simultaneously a personal strategy, as the women in particular pursue education.

2. Making work pay has emerged more central as a policy response. There was very strong support for a make work pay package—including making sure women get equal pay, expanding paid family, maternity, and sick leave for families, and making childcare available and affordable.

3. With families restructured and weighted down by debt, people remain responsive to conservative arguments on debt and spending.

  • “When you’re in debt you owe lots of money to people they’re going to come to collect it… like, the government’s in that much debt.” And, “what happens when we spend more than we’ll ever pay back? If I borrowed or charged us $450 million dollars on my credit card I’m going to lose my house, my car, everything. Is China going to repossess our country and then move their overpopulated people here? Where will we go? They own us.”

4. But information about rapidly falling deficits stops them and allows a shift to jobs and growth. This is the statement that shifted the debate: In May of this year, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reported that the federal budget deficit is declining this year compared to the last few years. The deficit has been reduced by 60 percent over the past two years and will be cut in half again over the next two years, which economists consider a normal level. 

5. Addressing inequality is critical, but the starting point and emotion is on political inequality á la Stiglitz and Reich. People are consumed by the lack of jobs that pay and the fate of the middle class, but they look right at the top when focused on the rigged political battle that favors the rich and connected. They are animated about the political inequality – the use of lobbyists and money to rig the game for those at the top. That is the entry point to making change.

  • “[The top 2 percent are] holding us hostage and then they’ve got the money to buy the politicians to get what they want.”
  • “The general concept of our elected officials being there to support their constituents and the people that have elected to put them in office and unfortunately I think the reality is that too many times they’re placing their votes with people that line their pockets from special interest groups.”
  • “The problem is you have corruption on these high levels where you have these people who are, you know, laundering money or they’re giving themselves these multi-million dollar annual bonuses and they’re cutting wages or they’re cutting jobs or they’re outsourcing jobs.”

6. People desperate for an end to political dysfunction. People are very conscious of the political dysfunction in Washington that keeps government from doing anything to address the country's problems – indeed, making it harder. That is not unrelated to calling people to use government to effect change. Their postcards at the end of the group were very revealing:

  • “We are not as divided in our opinions as our elected representatives! 2. With good old American political compromises our problems are solvable. 3. America’s citizens are often more patriotic than congress.”
  • “I think the government needs to work together to get things accomplished that benefit America and not special interests.”
  • “If both political parties could work together, we might actually be able to accomplish something.”
Ten Economic Lessons from President Obama’s State of the Union Address
Thursday, March 07 2013
Download this file (dcor sotu 10lessons 030613 FINAL.pdf)dcor sotu 10lessons 030613 FINAL.pdf[ ]1136 Kb


1.The economy is still very difficult for voters at the pocketbook level. This economy is still very painful for people. In focus groups with swing voters who watched the President’s speech with us, participants were very graphic about their personal financial situations and economic outlook.  They are very much on edge financially, which is their dominant context because they live it every day. Every speech needs to start from a place that understands this is not theoretical or ideological, but tangible and painful for people.

You can’t survive on one income. You can’t buy gas.

I work 7 days a week to afford my house, my car.

Often times I worked 5 jobs, never saw the kids. They raised themselves. A majority of politicians don’t understand the hardship.


2.  The President can highlight economic progress without taking credit. For the first time since 2009, the President was able to highlight good economic news without shutting voters down; these voters in Denver applauded it. In past exercises, we have found that when President Obama takes credit for progress on the economy in these times, voters react badly and view him as out of touch. The President thread a very careful needle in this speech and it worked. These voters are open to the President’s celebration of good economic news, as long as the President does not take credit for it.  The way President Obama framed current economic growth was through business, not government – businesses hiring again and jobs coming back to America was news these voters were willing to celebrate. We should not underestimate voters’ responses—this was a major turning point.


3.   Voters are aware of, and concerned about, the decline of the middle class. One of the biggest shifts came when President Obama talked about a decade of stagnation, and the need to reignite the middle class and restore the basic middle class bargain. All respondents (including Republican-leaning participants) responded to this. But the President lost the Republicans in our audience when he said that the government works on behalf of the many, not just the few. They came back, however, when he returned to the values of free enterprise.

4.  Voters support a growth agenda rather than an austerity agenda.Voters showed strong support for growth and jobs when the President asserted that “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.” The electorate is ready for a growth agenda that creates good, middle class jobs, and this was clear in their responses to specific policy items. Every time the President mentioned investment, our swing voters in Denver were very receptive—investment in manufacturing, science, and infrastructure all got positive support. One of the strongest responses came when the President talked about not cutting funding for education, job training, Medicare, and Social Security benefits. On that point, independents and unmarried women responded most sharply, climbing above the Democrats’ line. The only group to respond negatively were the Republicans in our audience, who proved outliers on many of these issues.



5.   Voters are looking for a balanced approach.Taken in the context of the sequester, there is significant support for President Obama’s balanced approach rather than the Republicans’ cuts-only approach to deficit reduction. Voters, especially unmarried women, responded with deep concern to the potential budget cuts. And the President got broad support when he talked about replacing reckless cuts with smart savings. He also won the voters in our audience when he talked about getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and the well-connected. This balanced approach was met with a great deal of approval from our audience, who fully grasped the contrast between closing loopholes for the wealthiest versus cutting retirement benefits for those who cannot afford it.

6.   There is strong support for further and more progressive tax reform.There is strong support for reform, including closing loopholes and instituting the Buffett rule, to make sure the wealthiest pay their share. At the end of the speech we saw big shifts in support for the President in supporting the middle class and handling the economy.



7.   Raising the minimum wage is a good start.Given the on-going stagnation and difficulties at the middle and bottom of the income spectrum, voters are looking for policies that will grow the economy from the bottom up. Raising the minimum wage produced a strong result among all groups except Republicans. Democrats reacted very favorably, as did independents and unmarried women. When the President proposed linking the minimum wage to the cost of living all groups, including Republicans, spiked.



8.   Unmarried women are more engaged and are the most engaged on economic issues affecting them. When we have conducted similar exercises in the past among unmarried women, their movement on the dials presaged their level of engagement and openness to voting for Democrats. During the 2012 campaign, they were more tentative and more closely aligned with independents. In sharp contrast, unmarried women in our group in Denver moved in close concert with the Democrats, and climbed even higher than the Democratic line at several key moments—including when the President talked about his growth and investment agenda, not allowing the painful sequester cuts to hit programs like education and job training, not cutting entitlement benefits for those who need it most, and closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and well-connected.



9.   Republicans are on a path different from all others on economic and budget choices.The President’s call to raise taxes on the wealthiest instead of making reckless cuts to education received strongly positive responses from all groups except the Republicans in our audience. On these measures, all of the dials rose while the Republican line dropped. In several key places in the speech, Republican lines moved in the opposite direction of all other lines: “consumers, patients and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before”; “this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few”; “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan”; “by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans”; “the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs”; “no one who works full time should have to live in poverty -- and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.” The point is not that Republicans were less receptive to the President’s speech than those who voted for him. We expected that. The striking observation is that these Republicans were unquestionably moving in the opposite direction as everyone else in the room. There is a difference between the points at which the Republican lines moved in unison with, just several octaves below, Democrats and independents, and the points at which all lines moved up while Republican lines dropped.

10.   Voters are receptive to smarter government that invests in broad-based growth.This is not 2010, when voters looked to punish the President for a lagging economy, the health care law, or high spending. While their trust in government has eroded, voters seem very open to the President’s call for smarter government that tackles big issues. For now, voters seem ready to support both his short-term plan and his long-term vision for restoring the economy.





Public looking for investment and balanced approach in face of sequester
Wednesday, February 27 2013
Download this file (dcor wv sotu graphs FINAL.pdf)Graphs[ ]1905 Kb
Download this file (dcor.wv.sotu.memo.FINAL.pdf)Memo[ ]1470 Kb

As the country approaches the next self-imposed crisis deadline of the prolonged budget battle, politicians in Washington and state capitals across the country would do well to take note: swing voters have no appetite for the severe cuts that will result from the sequester, and they have little patience for the crisis-to-crisis approach to fiscal governance that has defined the last two years. And now, as they are poised to experience painful austerity measures induced by Washington, these voters give clear signals about what the policy priorities should be moving forward. They are also very clear about who should be the priority in any budget deal—the middle class, seniors, and working families, rather than the wealthiest and elites with access to the halls of power.

Read more... [Public looking for investment and balanced approach in face of sequester]
Obama makes gains among swing voters on critical issues
Wednesday, February 13 2013
Download this file (SOTU.initial.memo.021313.FINAL.pdf)Memo[ ]701 Kb

Dial testing and follow-up focus groups with 44 swing voters in Denver, Colorado show that President Obama’s second term agenda—expressed through new policies for energy, pay equity, jobs, and education—was well-received by voters.[1] The President made impressive gains on his personal favorability and trust to move the country in a direction that reflects voters’ values. Following the speech, voters gave him high marks on women’s issues, looking out for the middle class, and plans for the economy. Even Republicans in our audience responded positively to Obama’s plan for tax reform and his call for bipartisan cooperation to break the gridlock in Washington. As one participant put it, “I liked his speech. I wanted to clap; I got misty-eyed.”

Read more... [Obama makes gains among swing voters on critical issues]
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