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Life in Post-Recession America: New Findings from the Heldrich Center Studies

February 11, 2013

It has been four years since the start of The Great Recession and, as of today, three quarters of Americans have been touched directly by its affects. The US economy has experienced some  gains, as evidenced by minor improvements in employment and financial statistics, but what would everyday Americans say?  What are the experiences and perceptions of Americans of all ages, races, education levels, and incomes?

This past January, GfK’s Government & Academic team partnered with Dr. Cliff Zukin, Dr. Carl Van Horn, and Mark Szeltner, from Rutgers University, to conduct highly relevant and compelling research on the topic of unemployment and the unemployed in the United States today.  Their report, titled  “Diminished Lives and Futures:  A Portrait of America in the Great-Recession Era,” was published by The Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University last week.

This study is the continuation of a project started in 2008. The purpose was to understand the current views of Americans on “the near and long-term outlook of the economy and labor market, the impact of the recession on Americans’ finances, the perceptions of the cause of unemployment, the role of government in ameliorating unemployment, and potential policy strategies to help the unemployed.”  To this end, Zukin and his team gathered the opinions and experiences of 1,090 members of GfK’s KnowledgePanel®, the only probability-based, 100% online survey research panel in the US.

The findings painted a less than ideal picture of our economy and showed that circumstances and attitudes have not changed much over the past three years.  Let me share just a few of the findings.

The recession is still felt by a large number of Americans; 74% of those surveyed were either laid-off themselves, or had a family member or close friend who was laid off during the recession. For those who were let go during the recession and subsequently found employment, the new position was not necessarily the same or better. Almost half took a job that was a step lower than their previous, and just over half took a pay decrease.

When it comes to the economy as a whole, a good many Americans are very concerned.  Four in ten (41%) say that the economy will not be better a year from now, and one-third think it will be worse.  More concerning, perhaps, is that 63% believe that the opportunities for the next generation will not be better than they are for this generation.

In real financial terms, the recession has impacted a majority of peoples’ pocket books.  Over half of respondents reported that they have less in savings now than they did before the recession hit. There were also serious impacts personally.  Among those laid off, many cut back on health care, took a lower skilled job, or sought professional help for anxiety and depression.

KnowledgePanel members were asked to share their views on what caused the recession and what should be done about it.  The most widely cited cause was not Wall Street bankers – this was only fourth on the list of causes and conditions.  Most Americans (70%) placed the blame on competition and cheap labor from other countries.

And what do people think should be done by government to fix the unemployment crisis?  Most people think that the government cannot do much directly; instead, they believe that private businesses creating jobs will do the most good.  That translates into wide support for the government enacting policies that will spur job growth – specifically, giving tax breaks to businesses that hire new workers.

In summary, the American people still feel dismay at the current level of unemployment, the U.S. economic outlook, their personal financial security, and the financial security of the generations to come.  Americans are aware that these changes are likely permanent, and the country needs to fundamentally shift.  All that said, however, perseverance is at our core as Americans, and that glimmer of hope and optimism will never be erased.

Debra Vanni is a Senior Research Manager within GfK’s Government & Academic team. She can be reached at  

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