Americans are feeling betrayed.
Even after a long run of prosperity and peace, they believe they are being left out, sharing neither in the nation’s wealth nor in the success of their companies.
They are anxious about the future, especially for their children.
Companies no longer are loyal to their workers, they believe. The boss makes sure that profits continue at all costs and that his own pay goes up. But as for his fellow employees, well, there is always the door.
This feeling of abandonment is one of the major findings of a national poll by Brown University as a prelude to the 17th-annual Brown/Providence Journal-Bulletin public affairs conference beginning today.
Almost 70 percent of those polled said companies are less loyal to workers than was the case a decade ago; nearly 60 percent said they feel workers aren’t sharing in the success and profits of their companies.
“There’s a lot of concern that companies have rewritten the social contract with workers, that chief executives are getting richer and are laying off workers at the same time,” said Darrell M. West, a Brown professor who supervised the poll.
What is surprising, West said, is that this follows an extended period of prosperity in which those polled concede that, in fact, their own circumstances are stable, if not improved.
Years of massive corporate layoffs, of factories moving to other states or overseas, of often-stagnant wages while executive pay has shot up have taken a big psychological toll on Americans, West said.
“People are feeling unappreciated and unrewarded.”
Elizabeth Ludvick, 38, of Lynn, Mass., participated in the poll. She says she believes companies are less loyal to employees - an opinion she comes to after hard personal experience.
A theologian with a master’s degree, she moved to Massachusetts two years ago from the Midwest hoping to further her education, but found it difficult to get a good-paying job, much less continue her studies.
Right now, she’s a mover - packing household goods and lugging them out to a moving van. She’s not afraid of heavy lifting, having grown up on a farm. But she’s only able to make ends meet in her $9-an-hour job.
“Companies are less loyal to their employees in trying to come to some kind of mutual understanding, working in collaboration with what’s good for employees, not just fair wages, but what’s expected of hours,” Ludvick said.
Her previous job was at a nursery, where she earned $8 an hour, working 60 to 65 hours a week. Promoted to a management job, she asked for a $2 an hour raise. Told no, she quit.
The country’s problem is the gap between rich and poor, she said. Who’s to blame?
“All of us,” Ludvick said. “I don’t think we can paint anyone as the big, bad wolf. I think workers like me are all responsible to stand up for unequal and unjust pay. A lot of people gripe and don’t do anything about it.”
The poll of 603 adults, picked at random across the United States, was conducted by Brown for the forum titled: “Updating the American Dream: What to Expect from Tomorrow’s Economy.”
The first of eight sessions begins today with a keynote speech by writer and editor Robert Kuttner. The forum concludes March 20. All events are at Brown and are free and open to the public.
The survey, conducted Feb. 18 to 25, was led by West, a political science professor and director of Brown’s John Hazen White Sr. Public Opinion Laboratory. Here are some findings:
People polled said jobs and unemployment led the list of the country’s problems, although government and not business was held responsible.
Sixty-eight percent said companies are less loyal to their employees than they were 10 years ago. Nearly 60 percent said that employees also are less loyal.
Those polled said their own circumstances were sound. Almost half said pay had gone up in the past year, while only 6 percent said they were unemployed, close to the actual national unemployment rate.
Asked if workers are sharing in company profits, 58 percent said no. Have they benefited from a robust U.S. economy? About 47 percent said no.
About 66 percent said young adults grabbing for the first rung of the economic ladder will face increased obstacles to success, more competition in their careers.
The poll produced two optimistic responses.
The booming stock market, which even as recently as last week was described by Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan as being inflated, will keep on booming, many predicted.
Further, those polled gave President Clinton and congressional leaders credit for understanding the country’s most pressing economic problems: 66 percent said leaders know what is going on.
But lest someone conclude Americans have gone soft on politicians, when asked whether Clinton and Congress will solve problems, 46 percent said no.
West sounded a sympathetic note for politicians, saying that this poll sends the kind of mixed signals that have boxed in Clinton and others.
For example, 59 percent said they pay too much income taxes. But almost 90 percent said that Social Security spending (which is 23 percent of the federal budget, or $384 billion) should stay the same or be increased.
“It kind of shows why our political system has been paralyzed on some of these issues,” West says. “There’s a real dichotomy between people on the one hand not wanting to pay higher taxes, but expecting better services.”
The poll found Americans concerned about education, believing that it is crucial, but worried that high schools aren’t doing their job.
About 70 percent said high schools are doing only a fair or poor job of training students for the future. (Conversely, 73 percent said their own schools had done an adequate or somewhat adequate job of training them).
While grousing about their taxes, 62 percent said they would be willing to pay more if the extra funds really would increase education quality.
But willingness to spend more money can be tricky to gauge.
The poll asked whether consumers thought companies should stay in the United States, even if that means higher priced goods: 69 percent said yes.
“There’s not a whole lot of evidence they practice what they believe,” West said. “People do buy cheap imports all the time. Sometimes people have abstract beliefs they don’t act on.”