It’s Our 40th Anniversary: So What’s the Problem?

Well, no problem – except today’s Rutgers-Eagleton Poll release is about what New Jerseyans see as the most important problems facing the state today. And while this is an inherently interesting question, for us it is something special this time.

The very first Eagleton Poll – in the field September 24 to October 1, 1971 was 40 years ago. And the very first question on that very first poll was:

To begin with what, in your opinion, are the two or three most important problems facing the State of New Jersey?

This was followed up with another question asking which one of the problems the respondent named was the single most important.

In today’s release we repeated the first question ever asked – and get results that are both similar to and very different from forty years ago. Note, we did not do the followup question due to time constraints, so we are using the first problem that was mentioned as the most important for this release. This fits basic psychological theory about availability of concepts to memory. Typically those concepts most salient – that is most important to us – are most easily recalled, and therefore likely to be the first problem mentioned in an open ended question like this. Of course, it would have been cleaner to do the followup, but all survey work is a tradeoff between what you would like to do and the cost to do it.

So what do we find? First, New Jersey’s obsession with taxes is nothing new. For those who have come lately to the scene, it may be funny to realize that taxes have been cited as the first or second most important problem for the last 40 years (and probably before that if we had been around to ask!) Other issues come and go, but taxes are forever.

Not surprisingly, the economy and related issues (jobs, etc.) are at the very top in 2011. What is more interesting is how some issues are completely off the radar. Housing, for example, was named as a one of the two or three most important problems by 10 percent in 1971. This year, literally no one mentioned housing at all. Civil rights got 7 percent in 1971; today it also is absent. And nearly a quarter named crime and drugs as one of their most important problems 40 years ago; in 2011 it’s 6 percent.

The full text of the release is below. Click here for a PDF of the release along with the relevant questions and tables.

Update: We got a nice write up in the Star-Ledger on this poll…


Crime and Environment Fall Far Below 1971 Levels

New Brunswick, Oct 22, 2011 – In the very first Rutgers-Eagleton Poll in September 1971, crime and drug addiction topped taxes as the single most important problem in New Jersey. Forty years later, crime is barely mentioned as jobs and the economy are now New Jersey’s top problem, according to a new Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Taxes, which consistently have been listed first or second over 40 years, continue to vex New Jerseyans, ranking just behind jobs as the state’s biggest problem.

The Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, one of the first statewide academic surveys in the United States, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. As part of the celebration, the poll will revisit questions first asked in its earliest years. “We’re honored to have served the people of New Jersey all these years,” said poll director David Redlawsk, professor of political science at Rutgers University. “The most important problem question was the very first one on the very first poll. It is fun and instructive to see how things have both changed and remained the same over all that time.”

Asked to name the two or three most important problems facing the state today, 27 percent name unemployment and jobs first, followed by 25 percent who cite taxes first, and 10 percent who express concern about the economy in general. Crime, cited first by 16 percent in 1971, beat taxes by only 2 percent. Today just 3 percent put crime at the top of the list. The environment, named by 10 percent in 1971, receives first mention from only 1 percent of Garden Staters today.

The new results are from a poll of 903 New Jersey adults conducted statewide among both landline and cell phone households from Oct. 6-9. The sample has a margin of error of +/-3.3 percentage points. Prior year polls included here have margins of error from +/- 2.8 percentage points to +/- 3.9 percentage points, depending on the size of the sample.

Economic issues crowd out others in 2011

Given the weakness of the economic recovery in New Jersey, residents see the economy and issues surrounding it as the most important problem the state faces. Including the 37 percent who name jobs or the economy first, 63 percent of New Jerseyans include jobs and economic issues in their list of top three problems. Half identify taxes in their top three, with 25 percent naming taxes first. Falling well behind is education, with 22 percent listing it among their top concerns, including 8 percent who name it first.

Concerns about taxes consistently have been at or near the top of the state’s problems over four decades, even as other problems came and went. In September 1971, 26 percent said taxes were the most important problem; that concern dropped to 11 percent in September 1981, but skyrocketed to 41 percent in February 1991. By June 1997, 21 percent saw taxes as the single most important problem, while 25 percent name taxes first today.

Worry about crime and illegal drugs was quite high in 1971, when one in six New Jerseyans cited them as the top concern following the urban riots and unrest of the late 1960s. Ten years later just half as many named crime at the top of the list. Today only 3 percent do so, the lowest percentage recorded.

“Today most people are worrying about their finances, their ability to get and keep jobs, and New Jersey’s continuing high taxes,” said Redlawsk. “That doesn’t leave a lot of room for worrying about other things. In better economic times, other issues can come to the top, though the problem of taxes never seems to go away.”

Redlawsk noted that results of the first Rutgers-Eagleton poll warned that members of the newly elected Legislature should watch out for the pocketbook issues. “The same can be said four decades later on the eve of yet another legislative election,” said Redlawsk.

A closer look at 2011’s top concerns

Following jobs and the economy, taxes, and education New Jerseyans cite a number of issues as their most important. Government spending and budget issues are named by 7 percent, while Gov. Chris Christie is cited by 3 percent, as are crime and drugs. Other issues get mentioned first by relatively few people: transportation, cost of living and health care by 2 percent, and corruption and the environment by only 1 percent of respondents.

Democrats (28 percent) and independents (27 percent) are slightly more concerned with unemployment than Republicans (25 percent), who are more likely to call taxes the most important problem; 30 percent of Republicans name taxes first, compared to 24 percent of independents and 23 percent of Democrats. Sixteen percent of Republicans cite the economy overall as the top problem, compared to 8 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of independents.

Democrats and independents are much more worried about education and schools than GOP respondents. Only 2 percent of Republicans mention schools as the top concern, while 10 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of independents say the same.

Unemployed and part-time workers are much more worried about jobs than those who are employed full time, 31 percent to 23 percent. Full-time workers are more worried about taxes (28 percent) than unemployed (21 percent), retired (24 percent) or part-time (19 percent) workers.

Significant changes in some worries since 1971

Some issues that were important in the Garden State in 1971, such as the environment, housing and civil rights receive a lot less attention today. Environmental concerns were high in 1971 and have steadily declined despite public debate in the media over climate change and recent extreme weather here. In 1971, 23 percent cited the environment as one of their top concerns. Today only 3 percent mention it at all.

Housing issues are not the radar today. Forty years ago, 10 percent of respondents named housing as one of the New Jersey’s top three problems. Similarly, civil rights and race relations were named by 7 percent in 1971; fewer than 1 percent of respondents expressed these as one of their top three concerns today.

In the first poll, nonwhites were considerably more worried about crime. This remains true in 2011, even as overall concerns have dropped dramatically. Only 1 percent of white respondents include crime or drugs as the first named problem, compared to 9 percent of African-American respondents.

Some issues have seen little change. Education and schools were cited by 22 percent of respondents in each poll as one of the top three concerns. Eleven percent saw transportation as a top problem in 1971 while 8 percent think it is now.


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