The American economy has been staggered by financial problems that started in the housing industry and financial sectors but have now spread to most other parts of the domestic and global economy. Families are struggling as large numbers of jobs are being lost or being put at risk, as their ability to keep their houses is challenged, and as their investments lose significant value. Citizens also have to assess the consequences of the massive government bailout of the banking industry and a gigantic portfolio of federal stimulus spending.
This is the most significant economic crisis in the internet era and a unique period of information seeking and communication. There have been other economic crises since the mid-1990s and the beginning of mass adoption of the internet, but none have taken place when the internet was so widely deployed or when the particulars of the crisis have been so extreme. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project wanted to examine how Americans were gathering and sharing information in their quest to cope with economic woes. The Project fielded a nationally representative phone survey between March 26 and April 19 to see how Americans were using the internet and other channels for two purposes: first, in seeking information that might help them cope with personal economic tribulations and, second, in getting material to help them understand the causes and proposed policy solutions to the crisis. In all, 2,253 adults were canvassed in the phone survey, including 561 via their cell phones.
In addition to the phone survey, the Project sought extra insight and commentary from Americans in an online survey that was completed by 172 respondents. The respondents were part of a panel of volunteers who have agreed to answer questions from us in occasional surveys. They were asked some, but not all, the same questions as those in the general phone survey and a number of open-ended questions designed to gather qualitative insights into how people were using the internet in the recession. The online survey is not representative of the general population. It was conducted to gather reactions and details that could be included in this report as the “human voice” of the online community. This report will quote from the answers people gave about their searching and coping strategies as they try to make sense of the recession and figure out how to adjust to it.
The starting point for our phone survey was to assess people’s sense of their personal economic circumstances and the nation’s situation. And there was a notable gap between people’s sense of their own lives compared with what they thought was going on in the rest of the nation. They were more upbeat about their own situation than the nation’s as the Infographic below demonstrates:
The general pattern to these judgments is easily explained: Those who live in poorer households are more likely to express concern than those who live in upper-income households. Those who have been seriously affected by the economic downturn are more likely to be downcast than those who have been relatively untouched. (See discussion of the “hard hit” below.)
One notable trend comes in the judgments of “worried well-off” about the national economy relative to their own circumstances: 45% of those in households earning more than $75,000 say the state of the national economy is “only fair” while 73% of them describe their own circumstances are excellent or good. Another noteworthy pattern is that the employed report their own financial situation is in decent shape (52% say it is excellent or good), but they are just as likely as the unemployed or retired to say they think the overall economy is troubled. Some 55% of the employed say general economic conditions are poor and 59% of non-workers feel the same way.
Furthermore, compared with non-internet users, those who use the internet were a bit more downcast about the overall economy, but somewhat more upbeat about their own economic situation. Internet users were more likely to say that the general condition of the economy was “only fair” (37% vs. 24% of non-users). Still, 43% of internet users said their personal financial situation was in good shape compared with 28% of non-users who said the same thing. These answers were likely driven by the fact that internet users are more likely than non-users to be employed and to have relatively high income and higher levels of education.
One respondent to our qualitative online survey described the exact moment that the seriousness of the crisis hit home for him: “My big ‘break through the clutter’ moment was September 29 . I was giving a presentation to a group of co-workers about ‘writing for the web,’ and was bringing up various sites on a big screen to make comments related to their presentation of material. At one point I opened CNN.com and the site had a big red headline ‘Breaking News: Market Drops 600 points’ (or whatever the big drop was at the moment). Everyone in the room gasped or groaned. The impact of that headline on everybody in the room was palpable. I've felt similar shudders when I've seen similar headlines on smaller screens since that day.”