Information Initiatives (from Pew Prospectus 2011)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Donald Kimelman


03/31/2011 - Joseph N. Pew Jr.’s assertion that “America is searching for a better life, not an easier life” is a fine notion, but is it true?  With some trepidation I posed that question to Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center.  The center, a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, is a world-renowned “fact tank” that regularly polls the American public on a wide range of concerns.  Its only agenda is to report its findings without fear or favor, which means that Keeter would not shrink from concluding that one of our founders had it wrong.  “What do Americans want?” he responded. “Riches, fame, power, unlimited leisure? Many undoubtedly do want these things. But that’s not all they want—or what’s most important to them.”

2008 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends Project found that the things people value most in their lives lean strongly in the “better life” direction—having enough free time, a good career, marriage, children, religion, charitable activities.  Being wealthy—that is, living the easy life—finishes dead last.

And lest the desire for free time suggest laziness, Keeter noted that a 2006 report from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey reveals that “work that gives a feeling of accomplishment” topped the list of things Americans said was most important on a job, while “short work hours” was way at the bottom.  It appears that Mr. Pew’s observation more than six decades ago holds true today.

It is not surprising that the Pew Research Center had data relevant to the easier life–better life dichotomy.  The center casts a very wide net in researching important issues and trends that are relevant to our times.  Highlights from 2010 give a sense of that diversity.

In February, the Pew Research Center produced a series of reports and hosted a well-attended conference on the political, cultural and religious views of the millennial generation.  In a nutshell it found that the tech-savvy millennials—those born after 1980—are socially tolerant, pro-government and less likely to be members of an organized religion than those who came before them. 

In April, the center reported that only 22 percent of Americans said they could trust the government in Washington always or most of the time.  A similar number expressed anger toward the federal government, more than double the figure from 2000.  Dan Balz, the Washington Post’s chief political reporter, wrote that “the Pew Research Center has produced a report about the mood in America that states the obvious in such a powerful and unambiguous way that no one should ignore its implications.” 

The center’s Global Attitudes Project reported in June that U.S. favorability ratings remained high in Western Europe during President Obama’s second year in office and had increased markedly in both China and Russia.  But opinions remained highly negative in most Muslim nations, including Pakistan, an important ally in the Afghan conflict. 

Later in June, the center reported that after 30 months, the Great Recession had lowered Americans’ expectations about their retirements and their children’s futures and prompted a new frugality in their spending and buying habits.  More than half of all adults in the labor force reported experiencing a work-related hardship such as a spell of unemployment, a cut in pay or a reduction in hours.

Two reports from the Pew Hispanic Center, a Pew Research Center project, contributed significantly to our understanding of the population of illegal immigrants in the United States.  An August report, released in the midst of a heated debate about whether the country should continue to guarantee citizenship to everyone born within its borders, found that 340,000 babies born in America in 2008—8 percent of the total—were the offspring of at least one unauthorized immigrant.  A few weeks later, the center reported that the inflow of unauthorized immigrants had sharply declined since 2007, leading to an overall reduction of 8 percent in the number currently living in the United States—the first significant reversal in the growth of this population over the past two decades. 

In August, the center’s Forum on Religion in Public Life seized headlines around the world with its finding that nearly one in five Americans (18 percent) believe President Obama is a Muslim, a number that has grown significantly during the president’s time in office. Also surprising was the finding that just one-third of adults (34 percent) believe President Obama is a Christian, down from 48 percent in early 2009. 

In October, the Forum was back in the news with a fascinating study on Americans’ religious literacy—or lack thereof.  It found that atheists and agnostics significantly outperformed Christians on questions about the core teaching, history and leading figures of major faith traditions.  Interest in the study and an accompanying quiz generated 1.2 million visitors to the Forum’s Web site in the first two days, more than 100 times its usual audience.

In all, the center published about 400 reports and analyses in the past year, on topics ranging from religious beliefs and practices in sub-Saharan Africa to broadband Internet adoption to media coverage of the Gulf oil spill.   Many of those reports, including those featured above, received major coverage in print, broadcast, cable and online media, ensuring attention from opinion leaders, policy makers and the broader public. 

The center has been particularly pleased of late with its online success.  It averaged 1.4 million visitors a month to its family of Web sites in the third quarter of 2010, more than double that same period a year earlier.

In an increasingly partisan political environment the Pew Research Center stands out as a purveyor of facts and analysis that is broadly accepted by the general public—no matter what kind of life people are seeking.

Donald Kimelman
Managing Director, Information Initiatives

Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2011 (PDF).

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