A recent survey indicates that the American middle class has become more pessimistic about the economy and is deeply worried about their own future.
In the poll, conducted in April by Heartland Monitor Polls, the 85 percent of respondents who identified themselves as belonging to the upper middle class, the middle class or the lower middle class said their generation enjoyed less employment and financial security than did their parents. The 68 percent who described themselves as lower middle class were the most worried that they might tumble further down the economic ladder.
Only 29 percent of the respondents felt the country was moving in the right direction -- down sharply from 41 percent in another Heartland poll six months ago.
And whom do people blame for this state of affairs? Sixty-four percent think Congress has made things worse for the middle class. And 55 percent think major financial institutions are also making things worse. It's hard to dismiss these judgments as unsound: In a bitterly divided Congress, with a Republican-controlled House not inclined to compromise, virtually every measure aimed at strengthening the economy is stalled. And many banks have not stepped up to help untangle the mortgage mess they helped to create in the first place.
There is also some reassuring news that tells us people are genuinely concerned about where the country is going overall, not just looking out for their personal advantage. The poll indicates that Americans want policymakers to focus on actions that increase economic growth, create jobs and make higher education -- which they see as a key gateway to success -- more affordable.
By coincidence, a very similar survey was conducted last month in six European countries by IPSOS, a European polling firm. While views throughout the countries surveyed -- France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, Italy and Poland -- were generally similar to those expressed by Americans, the French were the most pessimistic: 85 percent of the French thought the economic crisis in their country would get worse; 79 percent did not think the European Union was capable of coming up with solutions. And Europeans were focused, like their American counterparts, on overall progress, and the lower range of the economic ladder, as in the United States, was the most worried about future threats to their standard of living.
There is good news and bad news here. The bad news is that there is a deep lack of confidence in the future among the citizens of the two largest economic markets, the United States and Europe. Which means that any small steps forward toward economic recovery may be more than offset by the caution and fears of the middle class both here and abroad. On both continents, the public appears to have little confidence that existing institutions (whether Congress or the European Union) will get them out of the economic doldrums.
The good news is that there is broad recognition that changes in behavior and expectations on the part of all of us are necessary. There are signs on both continents that many of those who are worried are ready to respond to serious plans for recovery if they are put forward.
To date, broad proposals equal to the scale and severity of the challenge have not been forthcoming in either the United States or Europe. History teaches us that when the middle class is scared of what the future will bring economically and loses its faith in its political institutions, its trust in democracy weakens. So an important question emerges: How long do we have?
Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.