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Hopeful or gloomy? Americans divided

Polling on U.S. outlook changes little in past 5 years

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WASHINGTON — For years, Americans have been sharply divided over whether they believe the United States is generally headed in the right direction or toward some kind of national derailment, and as the nation enters its 224th year of independence, public opinion continues to vacillate between optimism and pessimism.

A study by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, based upon interviews with 10,595 adults conducted during the past five years, found that an average of 43 percent believe "America basically is headed in the right direction" — while a balancing 43 percent believe it is not. Another 14 percent are uncertain. The even division of opinion has changed very little from year to year.

Americans remain cautious despite consistently upbeat assessments from their leaders, as well as unparalleled economic prosperity and government surplus.

"Enjoying the fruits of a robust economy, the stability of a country at peace and the talents and energy of an increasingly diverse populace, America is poised to lead the world into a new millennium full of fresh opportunities and challenges," President Clinton said in last year's Fourth of July Proclamation.

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The study found that a sense of optimism varies dramatically between different groups of Americans.

Wealthy, well-educated urbanites are the most upbeat, while the poor, residents in rural areas and religious conservatives tend to be pessimistic. Women, especially single mothers, tend to be more concerned about the nation's future than men, especially men who have never been fathers. The effects of parenthood generally promote an increased sense of anxiety.

Among racial groups, blacks generally are pessimistic while ethnic Hispanics and other recent immigrants to the United States tend toward optimism.

Not surprisingly, personal economics strongly affects confidence in the nation. Only a third of the people with household incomes of less than $10,000 believe that America is headed on the right track, compared with a majority of those in households earning at least $60,000.

The most optimistic region of the nation is the urban Northeast, while the rural South is the least.

Religion also appears to play an important role in public confidence. The most optimistic group in the study are Jews. Sixty-nine percent of the Jews in the study said they think the nation is on the right track.

Catholics, who were once widely discriminated against, also tend to be more optimistic than Protestants.

The most critical religious groups are Mormons and other Christians, who often blast popular culture as obsessed with sexuality and self-gratification.

There also appears to be a political dimension to national optimism. Conservatives and Republicans tend to believe the nation is on the wrong track, while Democrats and self-described liberals tend to be upbeat.

The study found that young people and the elderly are about equally likely to be optimistic or pessimistic about the nation's future.

The study was based on telephone interviews with 10,595 adult residents living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in a series of 10 national polls conducted from 1995 through 1999. All of the polls were sponsored by Scripps Howard News Service and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

The margin of error for these trends is 2 percent.