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The Insecure American: Economic Experiences, Financial Worries, and Policy Attitudes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 March 2013

Jacob S. Hacker
Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University. E-mail:
Philipp Rehm
Ohio State University. E-mail:
Mark Schlesinger
Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University. E-mail:


Even before the sharp downturn that began in 2007, many Americans were concerned about economic risks. Yet this widespread public concern has not been matched by attention from political scientists regarding how citizens experience and understand the economic risks they face or how those experiences and understandings shape their views of public policy. We develop here an argument about the role of personal economic experiences in the formation of policy attitudes that we validate using a distinctive opinion survey of our own design, fielded not long after the onset of the Great Recession. The survey tracks citizens' economic experiences, expectations, and policy attitudes within multiple domains of risk (employment, medical care, family, and wealth arrangements). These investigations show that economic insecurity systematically and substantially affects citizens' attitudes toward government's role. Citizens' economic worries largely track exposure to substantial economic shocks. Citizens' policy attitudes in turn appear highly responsive to economic worries, as well as to the experience of economic shocks—with worries and shocks creating greater support for government policies that buffer the relevant economic risk. Attitudes seem most affected by temporally proximate shocks, shocks befalling households that have weak private safety nets, and shocks occurring within the domain most relevant to the policy in question, though attitudes are also (more weakly) correlated with shocks in other domains. The magnitude of these associations rivals partisanship and ideology and almost always exceeds that for conventional measures of socio-economic status. Given the long-term increase in economic insecurity and current sluggish recovery, understanding how insecurity shapes citizens' policy attitudes and political behavior should be a major concern of political science.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2013 

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