According to a recent Financial Times article (paywalled), surveys indicate a large disconnect between current economic facts and the public perception, to where the majority polled are mistaken:

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Another example: a Morning Consult poll in March this year asked a more targeted question "Are we in a recession" (no) and 46% of Americans said they think the economy is currently in a recession.

A YouGov/Economist poll in august found that "Only 34% say the number of jobs is increasing, though that has been the case in official government numbers every month since the economy began recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic."

What explains this large disconnect between reality and perception, and have there been previous periods showing such a dramatic economic discrepancy with a similar explanation as now?

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    There's a difference between what the government's data says, and what the vast majority of people are really having to live through. There has always been some disconnect there, it's just to what degrees that disconnect has been, and how it's been captured and later portrayed.
    – ouflak
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 17:14
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    What the heck is a "better lifestyle", defined so precisely that the Financial Times can state that respondents are objectively incorrect to answer "no" to that question? How exactly did the survey define it? Based upon my personal experience with polls, I doubt there was any definition; I expect that the FT simply invented, post-facto, whatever definition got it the numbers it wanted to publish. To say that the respondents were "mistaken" at all may be a misrepresentation of what happened, here. In other words, consider that the poll itself may be misleading, intentionally or not.
    – Corrodias
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 17:36
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    The question could also be "why are reports about the american economy so incorrect, or at least so far removed from what the average people experiences?" Remember, just because the GDP might have slightly increased and the average economy might have slightly recovered, it does not necessarily mean that it's true for most people's personal situation. If the ultra-rich have gotten even richer this year while most of the others got poorer, the "average" might have risen, but not for the average people. Therefore "the stats say otherwise, so people are incorrect" seems more like propaganda.
    – vsz
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 5:14
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    @dandavis In that case, I suggest amending the title of the question to something more along the lines of, "Why do polls of American's perceptions about their economy claim they are so incorrect?" or maybe, "[Why do the polls show that the perceptions are] so disconnected from economic measurements?". The title, as written, is implying that the polls are accurate, meaningful, and earnest, and that's not a safe assumption.
    – Corrodias
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 8:53
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    I don't really understand this question, or the charts above. My raise last year was 1%. A loaf of bread cost, on average, 1.87 in 2022, and in 2023 it cost 1.97. A 1% increase in the cost of the load would be 1.89. It doesn't matter to me, or the average responder, whether the US is in a recession, depression, or none of the above. I see my wages not buying as much, not keeping up with the increase of the costs of essentials, food, utilities, etc. and I'm going to answer the exact way the respnders answered, which is labvelled as wrong?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 16:08

9 Answers 9


Paul Krugman has covered this topic a lot recently in his New York Times column (e.g., New Perspectives on the Feel-Bad Economy, Nov 2023, and numerous others). The answer seems to be a mix of things, so here's my attempt to distill them into a list, ranked approximately by importance.

  1. People don't follow economic indicators all that closely. Most people base their assessment of the economy on various heuristics, what Krugman calls "vibes" (e.g., Inflation, Disinflation and Vibeflation, Dec 2023). If the heuristics don't comport with economic indicators, then people's perception of the economy will follow likewise diverge from the story told by the indicators.

  2. Perceptions of inflation are sticky. When you have an episode of inflation, once inflation is brought under control, prices do not go back down to their previous level. Rather, they resume their normal slow growth from the higher price level. When people compare the prices of things today to their idea of what those things ought to cost, they see that everything is more expensive than it "should" be. Often they interpret this as due to current inflation, rather than as the aftermath of a previous episode of inflation.

  3. Perceptions of inflation are biased toward frequent purchases and away from significant purchases. I saw this one in an article today about consumer misperceptions of inflation. The author makes the point that price indexes are weighted by the fraction that they make up in an average consumer's budget. Therefore, big-ticket purchases like furniture and consumer electronics get a larger weight than day-to-day purchases because on average they make up a larger share of consumers' spending. However, the day to day purchases are more salient in consumers' memory because they are likely to have bought those things more recently.

  4. Some of the most visible indicators are lagging indicators. Most workers' rent and pay rate get adjusted at most once a year, so at any given time many of them are still working off of last year's number.

  5. Bad news sells. The news media devote more column inches and air time to bad news than they do to good news. So, when economic indicators are bad you get a prominent and lengthy article about what it all means. When they are good it often gets relegated to a "news in brief" sidebar where it is easily missed.

  6. Some of the strong economic indicators are not that relevant to individuals. GDP growth in Q3 of 2023 was 5.2% annualized, which is phenomenal, but what does that mean to individual citizens? In the long run it's better for growth to be high than for it to be low, but in the short run it's just a number. People are more concerned with their personal situation here and now than they are with the economy as an abstraction.

If you take all of that together, it's a recipe for public sentiment on the economy that responds quickly when things deteriorate and recovers slowly when things get better, which is pretty much what we are seeing in the polls.

  • 38
    2. raises a point while simultaneously subduing it it by mentioning perception rather than effects. The effects are sticky since inflation is an incremental property, but people think in terms of actual prices. Can you blame them? Just because the things you needed to buy aren't increasing in price as fast anymore doesn't mean that the rapid increase in price in the past has disappeared, nor does it mean you can now afford them. The thing has gotten more expensive, and it has stayed more expensive.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 21:07
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    @DKNguyen All of what you say is true, but inflation isn't a measure of how expensive things are; it is a measure of how fast prices are increasing. The fact that people use price levels over long lag times to gauge what inflation is right now is a problem of perception. As to why someone should care about the inflation rate rather than the price level, it matters a lot for getting your expectations about the future right. People who think inflation has gotten worse over the past year will have wildly distorted expectations about what prices are likely to do in the future.
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 21:29
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    – CDJB
    Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 9:10

Americans, in general, don't know much of how the economy works. Ask someone to tell you the difference between national debt and the national deficit, or why either is important. You're likely to get back all sorts of erroneous answers. The Financial Times(FT) article seems to fail to take into account the currently dour financial mood of the US

Take Oscar Nuñez, 27, a server at a restaurant in Las Vegas. Foot traffic has been much slower than usual for this time of year, eating into his tips. He’d like to start his own business, but with the rising cost of living, he and his wife — who works at home answering questions from independent contractors for her employer — haven’t managed to save much money. It’s also a tough jump to make when the economy feels shaky.

Mr. Nuñez expected better from Mr. Biden when he voted blue in 2020, he said, but he wasn’t sure what specifically the president should have done better. And he is pretty sure another Trump term would be a disaster.

And that's from a Biden voter. Later they make this note

Ms. McDowell is what’s known in public opinion research as a high-information voter. Polls have shown that those less apt to stay up on the news tend to change their views when provided with more background on what the Biden administration has both accomplished and attempted.

Ms. McDowell is part of a pretty small group. Most folks aren't interested in staying that informed about much of anything, especially governmental policies and economic indicators.

Polls generally measure sentiments, not facts

Ask your average person to define inflation. They probably can't. As a result, asking a person about if inflation has risen faster than wages, and they won't have the faintest idea. But I should note that the way FT phrased their question is a bit misleading. Technically, speaking, inflation has slowed in its growth (chart from link, using "5Y" option)

Inflation growth

This should be good news, right? The rate of inflation seems to have mostly gone back to normal. And I'll stipulate that FT is right in saying that wages have gone up in the interim, probably at a higher rate. What the chart ignores is that inflation is compounded. Take milk. This chart (source) only includes numbers through 2022, but it's stark

Milk, adjusted for inflation

See how the inflation-adjusted numbers started going up sharply towards the end? The problem is that large sections of the economy have been doing that and people can remember cheaper prices. Worse is that, while wages are rising again, the government's own numbers show wages have not been keeping pace with rising costs

Real wages, per the US government

This is why the FT questions are so misleading. While inflation may have slowed, the real effects of higher costs are not going anywhere. When people are asked questions about inflation rates (which have gone down from their historic highs), most people tend to answer in terms of inflation costs (which are only increasing) because that's the only frame of reference they have. Unless prices start to go down, or wages rise enough to match the new prices, the endemic belief that inflation is still running amok likely to persist.

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    "This chart (source) only includes numbers through 2022, but it's stark" - something's definitely fishy here. Eyeballing the numbers off the chart (3.75 adjusted vs. 2.9 real 3 years back), this implies something like a 29% increase in overall CPI over a 3-year period, equivalent to 9% annualized consistently for 3 years. But the headline inflation number barely scraped 9% transiently. Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 20:27
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    "Worse is that, while wages are rising again, the government's own numbers show wages have not been keeping pace with rising costs" - doesn't that directly contradict FT's claim that wages have risen faster than prices compared to last year? Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 20:28
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    @KarlKnechtel You do realize that's tracking only one specific good, right? I never claimed that was the whole CPI. But milk is something commonly purchased by consumers. And there's a lot of other goods in the same category. If your grocery bill is much higher than it was before, that can affect your view of the economy as a whole. Stating that wages did rise overall does nothing to help that viewpoint.
    – Machavity
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 14:51
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    @KarlKnechtel That's a problem with your understanding of the inflation problem. It disproportionately impacted individual industries, with some seeing massive inflation and others seeing much less, which average out to the number you're used to. A huge number of consumer food goods have grown well above the average inflation rates given, and this has a greater impact the lower the income bracket. The economy isn't in balance, so the averages are unreliable to predict how any random person experiences the problems and recovery. This lopsidedness isn't communicated or measured well.
    – David S
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 15:40
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    Fair enough. I shouldn't have said the whole economy. There are segments where it has gone up significantly, and food is probably the most visible of those segments.
    – Machavity
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 17:23

Mostly because the questions revolve around the economy at large, not what people experience. For a lot of these questions there are factors that make the economy look great, but screw over the average consumer. And none of these questions take that into account.

Comparing today to one year ago, which has increased faster on average across the US, prices or wages?

Inflation might drop, but the rate at which companies raise prices does not. Companies like to use inflation as an excuse to raise the price of a product far beyond inflation numbers just because they can blame it on inflation and get away with it. People are still experiencing rising prices beyond inflation numbers even when those numbers drop. People only get x% as a raise matched with inflation, but then have to pay x*y% more for their products.

Do you think the rate of inflation has gone up, down, or stayed the same since this time last year.

Inflation NEVER brings prices down. So people experience a bout of high inflation and all of the prices for their daily purchases goes up. When the rate at which they go up changes to a smaller number that doesn't make their expenses any less. They're just experiencing prices going up. This also does not account for factors outside of inflation, such as companies inflating the prices of products 30%, 40%, 50%, 100%, 200% beyond the inflation numbers. This does not account for enshittification where people get worse products for the same money. They do apparently try to account for shrinkflation and the metrics for that could apply to enshittification, but companies will often take measures to counteract this such as adding weights to tech products to make them feel more 'premium'. Or they will apply shrinkflation as well as enshittification so the numbers reflected in the CPI are mainly the shrinkflation numbers, not accounting for lowered quality. This does not account for when companies collude (intentionally or by greed motive) to never drop prices or raise prices at the same time.

In terms of net worth do you think the median American household is wealthier today than before the pandemic?

This might not account for the market price of their assets being higher, even though they have less assets in general. Someone who has a 2 year old car might have a more valuable car than a 2 year old car last year. But they still only have 1 car. Maybe it's a worse car that retails for a higher price. They have less in their house even though it costs more so it looks like they have a higher net worth on paper, just not in reality.

Do you think someone on a median income could afford a better lifestyle today or a year ago?

This depends on how you define lifestyle. If you just look at the prices of things that they have it's the same problem as the above question. If you are asking what they have access to and can do with their resources, then you'd get a completely different answer. Fewer people can go on vacations, fewer people can save any meaningful amount of money, more people are living paycheck to paycheck. If you look at employment numbers as an indicator, then it looks great. More people are employed now than in the last decade. But a lot of those jobs are gig jobs where the person can barely afford the gas for their car that they are using for uber. It all depends on how they define 'better lifestyle', but they don't include that definition here.

Do you think the share of Americans living in poverty is higher today than 30 years ago?

This is another definition problem. The definition of inflation generally has to do with living off of x dollars per day. But has that number kept up over the last 30 years? Unlikely. Does that number account for companies charging more and more for less and less and worse and worse products that degrade sooner and need to be replaced more often? Unlikely. If the definition of poverty is different, then you'll get a different answer. Try answering how many people are living paycheck to paycheck. And the people who were around 30 years ago tend to be the ones who already have a home and over estimate the ability of people today to get houses and cars and a good job and so on. Their experience is detached from reality because they are not living it the same way as the rest of us.

I could keep going, but you maybe get the point by now. Factors that improve the economy at the expense of the average person are always going to give different answers to the data if your data does not take into account the experience of the average person. And especially when their definitions are not stated upfront.

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    That "poverty" question in particular is terribly written. The federal "poverty guideline" is a joke, currently at about $14.5k; earning less than that in a year is absolutely destitute, unable to afford even the simplest of homes, utilities, and food, but even people making more than that routinely struggle and fail to afford those things. I am certain that when the FT asked people about "living in poverty", they got answers about people being poor, then interpreted those answers as incorrect as if the question had actually been about the federal poverty guidelines.
    – Corrodias
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 17:28
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    Your answer contains many misconceptions about the economy and economics (and could help explain why there are so many wrong answers in the poll). For example, you claim that inflation figures do not account for "shinkflation" [sic] or "enshittification". But this is false. Inflation figures DO account for these. On shrinkflation, see e.g. this. On what you call "enshittification", google "inflation quality changes".
    – user103496
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 1:58
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    @user103496 I'll conceded that shrinkflation is accounted for there somewhat, but according to that article enshittification is not accounted for directly. It is a difficult thing to account for of course: "Data collectors do not record information such as the number of chocolate chips in a cookie or the number of pepperonis on a pizza, however, they do record attributes such as weight and volume". I'll update the answer to include this Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 7:30
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    Para 2 has some serious confusion. The "rate at which companies raise prices" is the same thing as inflation. There is no "price raises beyond inflation". The average price raises are what determines the inflation numbers, not the other way around...
    – mbrig
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 22:22
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    @Acccumulation and that absolutely is the case. Inflation trackers work against slowly changing baskets of goods where high rises in on category (say food and housing) can be offset by small rises or falls in others (say consumer electronics), but if I can't afford electronics in the first place then as far as I'm concerned prices are rising faster than inflation. Inflation here was 9.6%, but over 10% for poor people. ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/articles/…
    – Jontia
    Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 15:56

Responders have no incentive to answer correctly or honestly.

Polls are not high-stakes exams with one's future at stake. Nor are they quiz shows that award prizes for the correct answers.

Consider a responder who knows all the correct answers but passionately hates whichever party/president happens to be in power. She'd probably prefer to use this as an opportunity to express/vent her negative opinions than to give any correct answers.

So, instead of asking why their perceptions are so incorrect, one might instead ask why the answers they choose to give are so incorrect.

(This by the way is why economists tend to place a low value on what people say and more on what people do.)

(Note: I don't disagree with most of the points given in the two highest voted answers. This answer is just to supplement those other answers with a small point that doesn't seem to be mentioned yet.)

To further illustrate my point, suppose we changed the median household wealth question to this:

It is a fact that between 2019 and 2022, real median household net worth (or wealth) increased by $X, where

X = 72 × 34 - 93 × 14 + 913 × 32 - 53 × 119 + 512 × 66 - 82 × 96 + 73 × 25.

(Note that X could be negative.)

Do you think that X is positive, negative, or about zero?

Consider the difference in the percentage of correct answers if respondents were given sufficient time to answer and were also given $100 for the correct answer (versus the typical poll where respondents are pressured to respond quickly† and have no incentives to give the correct answer).

In the setting of a typical poll, most respondents will of course be unsure of the correct answer to the above question. And so, lacking time and incentives to solve the above problem, they may choose to simply and quickly give the answer that paints a negative picture of the economy and those in power.

This is not an outright lie. Instead, it's just a quick answer to an incentiveless poll that saves them their time and mental effort and also serves as a free opportunity to vent.

According to the Survey of Consumer Finances (2022, p. 12), real (household) median net worth was $141,100 in 2019 and $192,900 in 2022. That is an increase of $51,800 (which is the value of X above).

†In theory, poll respondents may have unlimited time to answer each question. But in practice, respondents will answer quickly in order to (1) save their own time; (2) not be embarrassed about wasting the pollster's time; (3) not sit for an hour in awkward silence; (4) not be embarrassed about appearing stupid and having to take an hour to answer a simple three-choice question.

  • 1
    This is why every such a poll should include attention check questions. They won't stop someone determined enough to give incorrect answers, but at least filter out most reckless responses.
    – Trang Oul
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 9:00
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    Is there anything to suggest that this poll in particular is enriched for knowingly false responses? This seems like a general criticism of polling in general, but even though there are known limitations, it's still generally viewed as reflective of what you're asking about. Inflation isn't really a hot-button issue with personal stakes which are more vulnerable to insincere responses. Even if this dataset overstates the degree of incorrect belief about the economy, you'd need about half of people to be choosing the wrong answer on purpose to change the conclusions. Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 21:23
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    This answer is inaccurate and promulgates misinformation. Typical polls will have about 3-4% intentionally trying to skew the poll. These respondents, among other factors, are accounted for in the margin of error. This is a known problem among polling that has had widely accepted methods of handling. Without citation specific to this poll, I would recommend deleting this answer.
    – David S
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 0:04
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    @DavidS: Typical polls will have about 3-4% intentionally trying to skew the poll. Which poll told you that?
    – user103496
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 0:44
  • @NuclearHoagie: As stated in the note at the end, "This answer is just to supplement the other answers with a small point that doesn't seem to be mentioned yet." I did not claim that this single small point alone fully explains the magnitude of the responders' incorrect responses. // Is there anything to suggest that this poll in particular is enriched for knowingly false responses? I did not make such a claim.
    – user103496
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 0:51

My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.

I believe that consumers have built-in expectation that some growth would be taking place. So 3% growth is the new zero.

So, imagine if wages, on average, were growing 6% whereas prices grown 4% on average. 6 - 4 = 2, so that's lower than "the new zero", so prices must be subjectively growing faster than wages.

Also, wages growth is famously uneven, with first quintile reliably overperforming in it whereas fourth and fifth underperforming and third one stagnating. Moreover, people are very sensitive to price squeeze: If they know one household having trouble paying their bills now due to prices growth, it won't matter that three more now have slightly more disposable income.

So I would say that Financial Times are trying to sell the rose-colored picture which the consumers are not buying. First of all, they focus on a time frame which is irrelevant to the consumers, where they are finally able to show some marginal economic improvement, perceived by consumers as "too little, too late".

In short, the the consumers are reacting to an over-praised but wimpy period of relative growth which follows a much longer period of disarray and stagnation.

  • I'm sorry, but if we take 3% growth as some sort of psychological benchmark, why aren't the numbers 6-3=3 and 4-3=1 (and 3>1 --> "wages are outpacing prices, woo-hoo!") the ones of interest in your hypothetical, rather than (6-4)-3=-1 --> "boo-hoo, things are getting 1% worse."
    – nitsua60
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 3:58

Even though the questions in the polls have the appearance of being quite objectively measurable the answers are far from being objective.

Take the question about prices: There is no golden truth about price development, instead economy create virtual baskets with items which they believe consumers want. What you put in the baskets determines how big your inflation is: If you put the cheapest can of corn you can find on a shelf in the basket your inflation is lower than it is if you put the cheapest can of non-GMO corn in there.

Then look at the question about "better lifestyle" it doesn't get much more subjective than that.

Equally you can define recession very differently, and published employment rates often have been subject to trickery (e.g. counting part time jobs that clearly cannot sustain a living).

So there is clearly an agenda in the questions being asked, and the numbers provided by the Financial Times and similar (who serves a very specific clientele), and not everyone in the US might agree with that agenda.

  • 3
    Like TheEvilMetal's answer, this answer also contains misconceptions about the economy and economics (and would help explain why there are so many wrong answers in the poll). // If you put the cheapest can of corn you can find on a shelf in the basket your inflation is lower than it is if you put the cheapest can of non-GMO corn in there. Inflation surveyors consistently track price changes of the same cans of corn. They do not track one expensive can of corn for some years, then suddenly switch to tracking a cheaper can of corn and so lower measured inflation.
    – user103496
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 2:23
  • @user103496 I never suggested comparing different products. If you go long enough back in time in your comparison, the cheapest products are non-GMO organic products, because all products were organic. So if you compare prices from today to prices from 30 years ago, you need to make some decisions about what foods of today you are comparing the foods from back then. Equating the corn from back then to the GMO corn of today is a subjective decision.
    – Helena
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 10:32
  • @user103496 in the end the corn example is an arbitrary example for subjectivity in the numbers, since I don't have any source for any of the financial times claims. The main point is that numbers are subjective and while not every person on the street is an economist, people are perfectly able to have their own opinion about whether life quality went up or down.
    – Helena
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 10:40
  • The UK intended to start tracking the 'Sam Vimes Boots Index' which would follow the cheapest items rather than static ones to understand inflation where cheap items were simply removed. But I can't find any evidence that published tracking has actually begun. theguardian.com/books/2022/jan/26/…
    – Jontia
    Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 7:20

According to political blogger Kevin Drum, this is mostly due to partisan belonging: Only 5% of Republicans think the economy is good, especially since Joe Biden's election. A poll conducted in August shows that as opposed to Democrats, Republicans think the national economy is bad even though a majority of them consider that their personal financial situation is fine.

Kevin Drum's interpretation:

In other words, when you see polls showing that "Americans" are losing confidence in the economy—and this is indeed the direction of recent polling—it's driven almost entirely by Republicans. And I think even Rothman would probably agree that 5% is too absurd a number to reflect actual reality. It's almost pure partisanship, not a genuine view of how good the economy is.

  • 1
    You can see some crosstabs to that effect on question 26 of the most recent YG/ECON poll (d3nkl3psvxxpe9.cloudfront.net/documents/…), and while that's for a much more amorphous "do you think the economy is getting better or worse" question, independents are quite pessimistic, so I'm not sure partisan lean explains it all.
    – dandavis
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 10:45
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    Polls seem more nuanced that political blogger view though there is some truth to it: pewresearch.org/politics/2023/06/21/… pewresearch.org/politics/2023/04/07/… Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 17:26
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    An unusually high number of people today could be described as "Republican until fairly recently", and as such I'd view any poll that splits respondents by party but does not expressly break out that category as being highly suspect.
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 17:41
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    The econ poll shows that republicans are convinced that the economy is bad, but the questions I'm asking about are based on objective measures like unemployment, are we in a recession, etc. It's legit for one to think "the econ is bad because my rent and eggs are expensive", but that doesn't change facts about the specific indicators being polled, as you allude to re: personal situations. Thus you seem to be claiming republicans are likelier to be plain wrong, not just embittered. If you can demonstrate that, you have a solid answer, but I'd want to see more evidence than a blogger's take.
    – dandavis
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 19:11
  • I have seen people saying its not bad but nobody actually supporting its not bad. By every reasonable metric a lay person would use to judge economic health the economy is really really bad. The numbers bear it out in the two most expenses people face. Food and fuel which all have inflection points at certain time periods.
    – Rig
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 18:11

The United States is a very unequal society. Things can be getting better for some people and worse for others.

This quote is illustrative:

Take Oscar Nuñez, 27, a server at a restaurant in Las Vegas. Foot traffic has been much slower than usual for this time of year, eating into his tips. He’d like to start his own business, but with the rising cost of living, he and his wife — who works at home answering questions from independent contractors for her employer — haven’t managed to save much money. It’s also a tough jump to make when the economy feels shaky.

The poll is also a bit misleading. They took specific measures, "unemployment v. 30 years ago", that are positive, when they could have chosen some that are negative, "unemployment v. last year". They ask about the "rate of inflation", but many people probably interpret that to mean, "have prices gone up since last year?" The rate of inflation is still much, much higher than historically, even if not as bad as last year.


Americans' incorrect perception about the economy are not an exception but just one example of the many false beliefs Americans harbor.

A fairly extreme and connected example is the perception of crime. The perception of the prevalence of crime is mostly decoupled from reality. In this Gallup poll, crime in the area where people live is considered extremely or very serious by only 17%, while 63% of the same people think it is very or extremely serious in the U.S. as a whole.

Because their information about the rest of America is second-hand, in particular traditional and social media, we can infer that this second-hand information draws a distorted picture of reality.

But what media report is only one side of the coin. Which part of the media people consume, and in which way, is the other. From the fact of these wrong beliefs we can conclude that too often, non-trustworthy sources are consumed and taken for the truth. And paradoxically, the attempt to consume media more critically may lead to embracing even less trustworthy sources, for example social media posts instead of mainstream news.

In general though, large parts of the American public harbor believes which seem outright bizarre to an outside observer. Large minorities, for example, believe that man was created by the Christian god a few thousand years ago1. A robust majority of 61% are ignorant and arrogant enough to think that America is literally blessed by that same god. In 1985, 53% agreed that the Soviet Union was an evil empire.2 Almost half of the Americans think that Donald Trump should be President again. Compared to that, underestimating economic performance seems a minor technicality.

1 That number depends a bit on the exact way you ask. It appears that a stable majority believes in some form of divine intervention or another. The proportion who believes man was outright created in the present form varies between 18% and 40%.

2 The wording is no coincidence, the religious connotation was fully intentional: Reagan's infamous "Evil empire" speech speech was delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals.


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