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Poll: Americans Have More Faith in Themselves Than in Uncle Sam

The public believes individuals and local organizations are better than the federal government is right now at tackling major challenges facing the country.

Americans have more confidence in the abilities of individuals and local organizations to effect positive political and social change in this country than they do in the federal government, according to a new poll

Just 19 percent of respondents said the federal government should take the lead to spur positive change in the face of the country’s major challenges, while 42 percent believed “average Americans” should play that role, the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll found. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they believed the federal government was “mostly hurting” the country with respect to the “major issues and challenges” confronting America today, while 63 percent said Uncle Sam was less responsive “to the opinions of average Americans” now than in previous generations. Sixty-six percent of respondents said community groups were “helping” the country confront its problems, while 64 percent said the same of small business organizations.

Overall, the poll surveyed 1,000 adults from April 9-13.

Respondents said the most effective ways to promote social and civic change were through volunteering (80 percent); helping to elect a candidate for public office (67 percent); organizing a group of people with similar views (66 percent) and using consumer purchasing power to influence companies (59 percent).

“Americans attribute the country’s major social achievements such as civil rights and women’s suffrage to the efforts of ordinary citizens and grassroots leadership -- as opposed to government-led efforts,” said a news release accompanying the poll. “Against this backdrop, most Americans believe that the best way to make a meaningful and lasting impact on key issues is for citizens get involved in their communities through individual action and the democratic process.”

It’s not clear from the poll how respondents defined the federal government when answering survey questions -- whether they were framing their answers based on their views of elected officials, the career federal workforce, or some combination of the two.

“I think it is primarily elected officials and Congress,” said Thomas J. Wilson, chairman, president and CEO of The Allstate Corporation, during a call with reporters on Friday to announce the poll results. The survey findings seem to bear that out: President Obama’s approval rating was 41 percent, according to the survey, while the approval rating for Congress was a dismal 11 percent. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed said political parties were “mostly hurting” the country with respect to the major issues and challenges confronting America today.

Wilson said that the survey did not ask specifically about the “federal bureaucracy,” and he speculated that if it did, the results would not have been so negative. Still, he added, Americans have “more confidence in things that are smaller scale.”

Even though respondents’ faith in the federal government was shaky, the survey also indicated that Americans still believe that government can do good things. Fifty-five percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “Government may not be working very well, but the best way to affect the most people possible is for people to participate in the democratic process and make government work better.”

Atlantic Media Editorial Director Ron Brownstein said that finding shows Americans haven’t “written off the idea of government as a positive force; they just don’t see it being one at the moment.”

Big business didn’t get particularly high marks in the latest Heartland Monitor poll, either. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said large corporations were less responsive to average Americans now than in previous generations. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed said large corporations were “mostly hurting” America when it came to major issues and challenges facing the country.

The Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor polls have been conducted quarterly since April 2009, analyzing Americans’ personal financial experiences, and their views on the financial system and the federal government’s budget situation. 

(Image via Michael Shake/Shutterstock.com)