The Year in Review: Domestic Agenda

Happy years are all alike. Every unhappy year is unhappy in its own way. That goes for 2002, whose twin themes of recession and terror made it a distinctively crummy one. Though it’s tempting to consign this year to the dustbin without a backward glance, it’s actually been an intriguing time in many ways—not all of them lamentable.

This was the year home-improvement became a full-blown American mania. It’s not that people were “cocooning.” Rather, homeowners have been in full hunter-gatherer mode: Every weekend, you see them weaving through the parking lots of home-center superstores, seeking spaces for their SUVs so they can load up on matériel for their latest project. In the fall, a Harris survey commissioned by the Lowe’s home-improvement chain found homeowners expecting to spend an average of $400 per month on such efforts during the ensuing 12 months; one in 10 planned to spend $10,000 or more in that period. Anecdotes abound, meanwhile, about people sneaking ahead of their neighbors on contractors’ waiting lists.

A convergence of factors helped give home improvement its new centrality in American life. With house prices staying high, people who might have traded up to a bigger home had to make the best of the one they already inhabited. It’s not as if they were going to take their ready cash and put it into the sinking, stinking stockmarket. The beauty of home improvement is that it gave people the pleasure of spending, but without the recession-induced guilt. After all (consumers could plausibly tell themselves), they were adding to the value of their greatest asset!

Adding demographic weight to this trend was the fact that so many people have joined the ranks of homeowners in recent years. A study issued in spring by the Fannie Mae Foundation ascribed this partly to the aging of the baby boom generation, whose home-ownership rate has pushed past 75 percent. It also noted the fact that ownership has surged among minorities. Forty percent of first-time homeowners during the 1990s were members of minority groups. At the same time, a Brookings Institution analysis of 2000 Census data pointed to the rising numbers of young single people and single-parent households in the suburbs. All of these factors added to the continued diversification of the suburban population—a trend that’s obvious to the naked eye when you visit those places, though still largely ignored by popular culture with its clichés about white-bread suburbia.

Economists have wondered loudly whether the decade-long increase in house prices has created a bubble that will burst next year. Few homeowners share that worry, as you can see from the chart below (based on a Gallup poll fielded last month). But what if the pessimistic economists are right? The consequences could be dismal indeed, and not solely in an economic sense. There’s also been a bubble effect in the share of people’s psychic energy that their houses command. To an unprecedented extent, the house has become a venue for self-expression by its owner. It’s one of those instances in which material possessions take on an emotional dimension. Mortgage refinancing has been like a mass-scale NEA grant, underwriting ordinary folks’ inclinations to exercise their individual taste in redoing their homes. At a time when the workplace is grim and the outside world is scary, houses have come to account for an outsized proportion of the satisfaction people derive from life. If prices fall and make those fancy improvements look like a poor investment, the resulting national funk will be ugly.

This is the peculiar context in which the allegations of insider trading by Martha Stewart were treated as earth-shaking news. Feminists pretend to scorn Stewart for imposing onerous chores on already harried wives and mothers. In truth, what they won’t forgive her for is that she makes some female homemakers’ lives more satisfying. Suburban housewives are poor candidates for consciousness-raising about domestic drudgery if they’re actually feeling creative and accomplished out there. As it happens, polls show women doing more and more of the home-improvement work themselves. The Lowe’s survey mentioned above found 39 percent of female respondents saying they do more of the work than the man of the house does.

There’s nothing like a rogue CEO to make the rest of us look (comparatively) good. In a July CBS News/New York Times survey, just 27 percent of adults said most corporate executives are honest. That same month,71 percent of respondents to a Time/CNN poll declared that CEOs are “less ethical and honest” than the “average person.”

When we judge the average person on his own merits, and not by the low standards of defrocked CEOs, opinions are more mixed. A July CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asked, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” Can’t-be-too-careful won easily, beating most-can-be-trusted by 57 percent to 41 percent. That’s consistent with three decades of polls on this question by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. And it’s nearly identical to the findings of a September poll by The Washington Post on the same question (56 percent can’t-be-too-careful, 42 percent most-can-be-trusted).

But when the Post poll put matters a bit differently—as shown in the chart here—a majority of respondents deemed their fellow man trustworthy. Nobody wants to be taken for a fool. Still, even in a year when CEOs and priests were doing the perp walk on the nightly news, people seem reluctant to think the worst of each other.

Here’s a candidate for Counterintuitive Fact of the Year: Most Americans are happy with their healthcare plans. When surveys ask people to assess the state of healthcare in the U.S., responses are routinely negative. When they’re asked about their own situation, though, responses are overwhelmingly positive. A Harris Poll released in January found 67 percent of adults with employer-provided health plans giving their own a grade of A or B, vs. 8 percent giving a D or F. In a November Gallup poll, 89 percent of adults with private-sector insurance rated their health plan as good or excellent.

That’s not to say all is well. One problem now getting attention is “noncompliance” with a prescription-drug regimen due to cost. A Kaiser Family Foundation study in the spring found 21 percent of women and 13 percent of men have failed to fill a prescription because they couldn’t afford it. A Harris Poll last month found 18 percent of respondents had refrained from asking for a prescription in the past year due to cost; 15 percent had used a prescription drug at a low dosage to make it last longer.

Even in a lousy year like 2002, Americans are a cheerful bunch. It’s not that they’re given to Pollyannaism. Throughout the year, polls showed people had digested the bad news about the economy (even if they did keep spending). But they remained convinced that things will get better before too long. And, miracle of miracles, they took into account various nonfinancial factors when gauging how satisfied they are with life.

When the Harris Poll quizzed people in June for its annual Feel Good Index, they were glum about the national economy and edgy about their own financial security. Nonetheless, 92 percent said they felt good about “the quality of your life overall”—up a percentage point from the pre-recession, pre-9/11 Feel Good poll of 2000. Similarly, when a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll asked people whether they have more or less to be thankful for this Thanksgiving than 10 years ago, 82 percent said “more.”

Correctly or not, Americans tend to feel their best days still lie ahead. In a newly released AARP poll (excerpted in the chart above right), young adults were more likely than their elders to feel their lives would be better five years from now. But one is most struck by the sunny outlook of people age 57 and over. Let’s face it: This is a cohort among whom significant numbers of people will be dead five years from now. Nevertheless, the number of 57-plus respondents who think their lives will be better five years from now is more than double the number who think their lives will be worse.

While not uniquely American, this level of satisfaction with life is more the exception than the rule elsewhere in the world. When an Ipsos-Reid poll last spring asked people in a dozen countries to rate their “quality of life” on a scale of 1 (“completely dissatisfied”) to 7 (“completely satisfied”), 64 percent of Americans answered with a 6 or 7. That compares with 58 percent in Australia, 53 percent in the U.K., 45 percent in Canada and 28 percent in Germany. Likewise, a 44-country poll by the Pew Center for the People & the Press found 64 percent of Americans voicing high satisfaction with their lives—a number unmatched in Asia, Europe or Africa. This, as much as matters of state, may explain the hysterical tone of foreigners’ anti-Americanism: They find us insufferably cheerful.

When Americans do complain about their own lives (as opposed to the state of the world in general), it’s often to lament their lack of free time. This month saw the mass-media unveiling (on Good Morning America) and then the small-media debunking (in The New Republic) of something called Hurried Women Syndrome. (It’s just what it sounds like.) An article in the wonderfully named Journal of Happiness Studies said people in the world’s richer countries “are beginning to consider time prosperity as a dimension of their well-being beyond their consumer wealth.” The proliferation of octogenarian retirees means the total U.S. man-hours of leisure is climbing to levels never before seen. But that’s no consolation to the over-scheduled soccer mom. An October Gallup poll found 14 percent of adults saying they “never have time to relax.” Parents (especially mothers) of young children were over-represented in this class. Although40 percent of adults said they have little or no time to relax, the figure was higher among working mothers (65 percent), single parents (61 percent), working fathers (55 percent), adults in two-income families (54 percent) and 30-49-year-olds (52 percent).

Along with its full-grown trends, 2002 had its share of little trendlings that may or may not take root and grow. Most intriguingly, the year showed hints that the gender gap might be narrowing in some respects. In an October survey by The Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard, women 18-37 were as likely as men that age to self-identify as Republicans, even as older women remained far more Democratic than older men. Since 9/11, some polls (though by no means all) have also shown women less averse to military action (hence, more in agreement with men) than was true in earlier years. At the same time, women are showing less fidelity to multiculturalism. One of the year’s most interesting nuggets of data: An autumn Los Angeles Times poll found that 27 percent of women who had made an effort to learn about Islam now viewed it more unfavorably, vs. 12 percent who’d come to regard it more favorably. The old gender disputes within the U.S. may seem more trivial now that our attention has been arrested by deeper civilizational differences between the West and fundamentalist Islam.

Finally, it’s time for Oddball Data on Parade! Part of the fun of opinion-poll data is the reminder it gives us that people think and behave in lots of peculiar ways. Here are some of 2002’s odder findings:

• 16 percent of golfers confessed they’ve broken at least one club in anger. (from Golf Magazine)

•While 81 percent of all religious adults believe heaven exists, just 65 percent believe in hell. (Family Circle)

• 17 percent of Americans expect the world to end in their lifetimes. (Time/CNN)

• 9 percent of Americans think it’d be good for the U.S. to have a royal family. (Gallup)

• 28 percent of women look into a mirror six or more times per day. (Self magazine)

• 53 percent of Americans “would be interested in encountering extraterrestrial life forms here on earth.” (RoperASW)

• 6 percent of consumers said allegations of insider trading by Martha Stewart made them more likely to buy her wares. (Zogby)

• 81 percent of Americans feel they should write a book. (Jenkins Group)

• While most people said the man’s medical history would be the chief factor in picking a sperm donor, 3 percent said the donor’s hobbies would be the decisive element. (Child magazine)

• 23 percent of adults claim to have had sex in the workplace. (Euro RSCG Worldwide)