What Is The ‘Most Important Problem’ In The U.S.?


Government spying on its own citizens is seen by some as an important issue
(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

Americans disagree with each other on almost everything, it seems. We can’t even agree on which issues are most important. A Gallup survey just before the inauguration revealed that there is no stand-out issue on which Americans agree “this is the most important”.

Gallup has done the same survey at the beginning of each president’s first term for decades, and almost every time there was a huge looming issue that many of us agreed on — Vietnam in 1968, but in all other years it was the economy, inflation, and cost-of-living (except for 2001, in which there was no agreement). The biggest agreement of my lifetime was in 1974, when Gerald Ford took office, and 77% of respondents said “inflation/cost of living” was the most important issue.

Today, only 11% said the economy was the biggest issue at hand; another 11% said “government dissatisfaction”.

“The 11% mentioning both the economy and dissatisfaction with government are the lowest percentages recorded for the most commonly mentioned ‘most important problem’ since Gallup began asking this question in 1939.”

Race relations was third, at 10%. Healthcare was the top issue for 9% of Americans, and two issues tied with 8% each: unemployment and election reform. Other issues that received between 2 and 5% of the responses include terrorism, education, ethics/moral decline, federal budget deficit, immigration, crime/violence, lack of money, lack of respect for each other, national security, unifying the country, gap between rich and poor, judicial system, poverty/homelessness, Iraq/ISIS, wage issues, no opinion, and other.

I found it extremely interesting that climate change/environment wasn’t on the list. I assume this is because Gallup didn’t offer it as a choice. Further, I noticed that civil rights wasn’t listed. Neither was abortion, gun control, or warrantless NSA spying.

***

Nine years ago, I asked my readers which problem or political issue in the U.S. was most important. I opined then that the biggest problem was increased polarization:

“We’re divided over the current wars, over health care, the economy, and nearly every other issue. As a dedicated independent who tries to stick to the ‘middle of the road’, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to identify with either side, as they split further apart. That’s the biggest issue, in my opinion. We have two sets of ‘facts’ in this country, two sets of right and wrong, on nearly every subject.”

I listed several issues for readers to choose from. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of a response then — I’ve never had more than a handful of dedicated readers for this blog. So naturally, I wondered what my current readers might think the biggest issue in our nation is today.

As for me, I still think polarization is a giant issue, though I’m no longer convinced it’s the biggest.

In the past nine years, I’ve become increasingly concerned over climate change (which I hope has been obvious), which threatens us all in the long run. The problem with climate change is that it’s a long-term issue — we caused it over several lifetimes, and it will require several lifetimes to solve it. It moves slowly, by fractions of a degree. It’s difficult for people to get really wrapped up in it because the ice caps are still there, the sea level rise is measured in centimeters, and local weather easily fools many people into thinking there is no overall pattern.

Another biggie is the single-party nature of our country. I once complained that the “two-party system” was aggravating, but now a combination of gerrymandering, Electoral College unfairness, demagoguery, and fake news has all but eliminated one of the two major parties (despite the out-of-power party being more popular and having a more favorable image). I’m not comfortable living in a single-party nation. It doesn’t happen often in our history that a single party controls the presidency, the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and a supermajority of state governments. And bad things usually happen under such single-party control.

And since I’m the author, I’ll allow myself to mention one more: the increasing tendency of government (at all levels) to side with giant corporations and the very wealthy against the most vulnerable. This is almost certainly a direct result of how much money is annually unloaded onto members of Congress and even state-level officials. It doesn’t help that about half of U.S. voters openly support this tendency.

So, I’ll ask again: What do you think is the most important problem in the U.S. today? Is one of the above, or something else?

14 Comments
  1. Pride, greed, lust, envy, sloth, wrath, and gluttony.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      At least five of those can be described in one word, beginning with “Trum” and ending with “rump”.

      • Mammon says:

        He definitely has all seven going on.
        Pride: His narcissism. Slapping his name on everyting.
        Greed: Long history of unethical business practices, self dealing charity, too many examples. Not to mention his golden penthouse that Auric Goldfinger would consider too much.
        Lust: “Grab them by the pussy”.
        Envy: Various accounts of his need to be liked. Demands power and respect, but also to be treated with kid gloves. Is simply never satisfied.
        Sloth: Indifference to many serious issues like climate change or the genocide that took place in Aleppo.
        Wrath: Advocating for the return of torture techniques and attacking the families of terrorists.
        Gluttony: I consider the continued over-consumption of fossil fuel to be a form of gluttony, but I’m sure there are plenty of examples of him meeting one of Thomas Aquinas’ five ways to commit gluttony. Particularly: eating food that is too luxurious, exotic, or costly.

        • Wil C. Fry says:

          For the record, I was leaving off sloth and gluttony, using their more typical definitions. :-)

  2. Dana says:

    I think climate change may be the biggest problem world-wide (in other words, it’s not just America’s problem).

    I think the ever widening gap between the richest and the poorest (or even the 1% and everyone else) in this country is the number one problem that needs to be addressed. If you address that and the causes of the inequality, a lot of other problems that are incidental (crime rates, access to education, access to healthcare, affordable housing) get solved as well.

    Mass incarceration would be second on my list.

    And I’m not the author of this blog, but I’m going to also add a third “problem:” discrimination against anyone who isn’t a white Christian male.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Difficult to argue with that. Thank you for the contribution.

      (For what it’s worth, I’ve been working on a very long entry about income inequality, wealth inequality, etc. It’s taken me weeks so far, because I’m trying to be concise-yet-accurate, broad-yet-informative, and make sure I have sources for everything.)

      • Dana says:

        I first became aware that this was a rather uniquely American problem (1% of the people having all the wealth) in the early 90s when I was in Law School. I particularly admired my Criminal Law Professor, Stanley Fisher, who did a lot of work comparing various Criminal Justice Systems worldwide. In his courses, I learned that in (first world) countries with the lowest crimes rates (for example, the Netherlands) there was a correlation between how small the gap was between the wealthiest citizens of that nation and the poorest (a smaller wealth gap between richest and smallest had the lowest crime rates. Those countries with low crime rates also tended to have socialized housing and healthcare (perhaps helping to bridge the gap between richest and poorest).

        • Wil C. Fry says:

          That’s interesting; I hadn’t heard that correlation before.

          It certainly makes intuitive sense that the crime rate needle will move up or down with the tides of the lower economic classes. And combine that with the fact that the level of inequality (by definition) changes as the income and wealth of the lower classes rises and falls, it makes perfect sense.

          I also consider that income/wealth inequality can be both a cause AND an effect of the crime rates — economic despair can lead to crime, and convictions can lead to economic despair (unless you’re wealthy).

  3. Mammon says:

    It’s hard to pinpoint which problems spawn the most additional problems. I do consider polarization to be a major parent problem. It seems to self-perpetuate. As one side becomes more extreme and obstructionist, the other feels threatened and responds in kind. I’m certainly guilty of it myself. I think it makes problems harder to solve more than it directly causes them though.
    I often joke to myself that misinformation is against my religion. Corporate influence in politics and income inequality are- I think- the sources of misinformation and many more problems. As we see in the climate change “debate”, it’s the fossil fuel industry that promotes denial and congresspersons who receive money from those industries or represent states that produce fossil fuels tend to fall in line. Private prisons promote mass-incarceration, gun manufacturers use the NRA to lobby for looser gun laws (as well as defend them in court against law suits from gun owners), etc… Then income inequality adds to the misinformation problem by reducing access to education and information. It contributes to other problems by serving as another racial divide, poverty increases the likelihood someone will commit certain crimes, poor access to healthcare exacerbates health problems into greater burdens, add the inability to buy healthier foods (to save gas, poor families make less frequent trips to the grocery store, which means food needs to last longer, so fresh produce and other products with short expirations aren’t smart choices). Of course, income inequality also gives the rich corporations more power to influence government and continue to promote income inequality.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Indeed, each of the problems intersect with the others to some degree. “It’s a web, not a chain”, as someone once said to me about another topic.

      In some ways, religion is part of this web too — training us from a young age to accept assertions without evidence, moving slowly on human rights issues, resisting new scientific knowledge (which could solve at least some of the problems), teaching acceptance of hardship as “the will of God”, etc.

  4. In a word, fear.

    Everything that went on in the past election reeked of pants-pissing fear. Our military’s in shambles; fear. We’re making bad deals; fear. You can’t walk down the street; fear. Build a wall; fear. Mexican criminals invading; fear. They want to take away your guns/rights/health-care; fear. What have you got to lose; fear.

    So now we have a fear-monger in chief issuing gag orders, giving alternate facts, authorizing torture, pulling America back from decades of reaching out, and telling business that they are worth protecting more than any law/people/species.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Very convincing. Thank you for the contribution.

      Perhaps feeding into the fear culture is a sense of helplessness. It’s one thing to face a challenge when you can see a way out; quite another when pathways are intentionally blocked.

  5. Dana says:

    I guess at a very granular level I would say that as of right now, this country’s #1 problem is Donald Trump.

    But I’ll plus one everyone else’s suggestions, too.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      In this very moment, his actions are certainly exacerbating most or all of the individual issues listed above.

      Clearly each person’s station in life magnifies some problems and causes others to shrink in comparison.

      As a middle-aged, middle-class, straight, white male with incontestable American citizenship who doesn’t use illegal drugs, many of Trump’s current actions — just like many of the pre-Trump issues, do not affect me directly or personally. Perhaps this relative level of privilege allows me to magnify climate change in my own mind. Since few of the other issues are immediately tangible to me, the far-off, intangible nature of climate change isn’t a problem.

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