The Great Recession and Public Attitudes Toward the Role of Government

Awarded Scholars:
Steven S. Smith, Washington University in St. Louis
Stanley Feldman, Stony Brook University
Cindy D. Kam, Vanderbilt University
Steven M. Fazzari, Washington University in St. Louis
Project Date:
Jun 2012
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
The Social and Economic Effects of the Great Recession

Ever since the Great Depression and the advent of the New Deal, most Americans have accepted the idea that the government should play a role in managing the economy and addressing major social challenges. However, despite general agreement that the government should play some role in managing the economy, attitudes about the nature and size of that role vary widely. These attitudes increasingly divide along party lines and deepen the polarization among the electorate and politicians alike. The Great Recession occurred within this polarized context, throwing the economy into turmoil and possibly reshaping views about the role of government in ways that are only beginning to emerge.

Steven Smith conjectures that many Americans now believe that the government is responsible for allowing the markets to fail and will be unable to fix this recession or prevent future recessions. These beliefs may have reinforced record-low levels of trust in U.S. political institutions. Many Americans may also feel that there is little hope for meaningful recovery from the recession, and that even if recovery does occur, job stability and quality will likely never recover. Hard hit by the Great Recession, the middle class is experiencing this frustration along with the working class and poor. Smith hypothesizes that all of these factors – political polarization, lack of trust in government, lack of hope for recovery, and the impact of the recession on the middle class – have combined to make Americans reconsider the role government should play in American economic and social life. Accordingly, Smith and his team proposes to conduct a web-based panel survey over the next four years to examine the evolution of the public’s views on the role of government in managing the economy and major social problems during the aftermath of the Great Recession. They also plan to assess public attitudes about the priorities of economic policies, and public beliefs about how the economy works. Their goal is to understand how people’s social, economic, and political characteristics interact with macro-level economic and political conditions to shape micro-level changes in expectations, beliefs, and attitudes about the role of the government.


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