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Survey ranks creation of good-paying jobs first, finds optimism despite deep divisions
The latest Heartland survey hints at a readiness to move forward, expert says. But while it finds some optimism, lingering worries about divisions and tension remain. On the bright side, personal finances are looking better, overall. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Americans want their elected officials to compromise when needed to get things done and they list creation of jobs that pay well as their top priority. Across age, race, education and income levels, they also place high value on equal pay for women and immigration reform.

That's according to the newest Heartland Monitor Poll for Allstate and Atlantic Media, released Wednesday. The survey was conducted this year right after the election to get a sense of the direction Americans would like the new administration to go. The survey, with variations, has been done at least twice a year since 2009.

"I think the story here is there's optimism and some ability to see a better future, but there are still divisions and tensions we all see within our society that need to be tackled," said Bill Cullo, head of research and polling for FTI Americas, which conducted the survey.

The renewed sense of starting a fresh chapter and the hopefulness that comes with that are fairly typical after an election, regardless of the election results, he said. After acknowledging a list of national challenges including a large budget deficit and national debt, terrorism, cultural clashes, a political divide and more, two-thirds of those polled nevertheless said Americans "will overcome these challenges in the foreseeable future, just like we've done with other major challenges throughout our history."

The survey clearly finds a high degree of dissatisfaction, but the trend indicates more optimism, Cullo said. He noted that while 36 percent of respondents say the United States is on the right track, compared to half who say wrong track, that's better than the beginning of 2016, when one-fourth said right track and 62 percent said wrong track.

The survey also shows areas of overwhelming consensus like the need to protect Medicare and Social Security, as well as strong support for development of renewable fuels.

Despite areas of agreement, the survey shows a nation deeply divided on whether things will get better or worse in coming years and how change should be accomplished. For example, 52 percent believe growing diversity and increased equality are signs of improvement, while 42 percent see the same issues through the lens of a nation that is "changing too fast and losing its values."

Support for whether the country should be strengthening relationships with foreign nations or focusing on being independent was evenly split at 47 percent.

Stop bickering

Fifty-seven percent of people say it is more important that politicians compromise than it is that they stick to stated ideals, "even if it means conceding on certain policies."

"Our country has come together in the face of serious challenges throughout history, from world wars to economic depressions," said Bill Vainisi, Allstates senior vice president and deputy general counsel, in a written statement. "Profound challenges remain ahead, and we will need to address them. Americans have a genuine desire for government, business leaders and community members to work together to drive positive, lasting change."

"The need for compromise is one of the points of clarity," said Cullo. "They solidly prefer politicians to compromise. We've seen what happens when people stick to their core values and put a stake in the ground and say 'I'm not crossing this.' Gridlock."

That gridlock may be one reason those polled gave Congress an overall thumbs down on its performance. Asked "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job," 17 percent said they approve, while 73 percent disapprove. That's just a slight improvement over January's Heartland poll, when 15 percent approved and 80 percent disapproved. Congress got its highest marks in the November 2012 survey, with a 21 percent approval rating.

Just three in 10 say the current economic state of the country is excellent or good, but that's still the highest it has been since 2013. The rest largely rate it as fair or poor. But four in 10 said they expect the economy to improve, compared to 22 percent who think it will stay the same and 28 percent who think it will get worse. The vast majority also believe their own situation will either stay the same or improve.

Personally doing OK

Personal finances are a bright spot, with more than half of those polled listing their personal financial situation as either excellent or good, the largest number to do so since 2009. Only 13 percent list their own financial situation as poor.

Economic news for families is not all rosy, at least according to other surveys. In October, the 2016 American Family Survey suggested that although the economy has recovered since the recession, many Americans are "ill-prepared should even fairly small things go wrong."

It said that four in 10 Americans concede their personal savings would not stretch to cover a full month's expenses. A similar number had actually experienced a financial crisis of some sort in the past 12 months.

The Heartland survey found a clear preference (52 percent) for "growing the economy and creating jobs through investments in education, training, infrastructure and research even if it means continued deficits and tax increases," compared to 27 percent who prefer "growing the economy and creating jobs through tax cuts for businesses and individuals, even if it means continued deficits and cuts to public services."

Items most listed as high priority for Congress and the new president to get done include creation of jobs that pay well, enforcing equal pay for women, passing comprehensive immigration reform, improving the nation's infrastructure, strengthening the military and improving college affordability and student loan forgiveness, among others.