Public Opinion Monthly (April 2014): Optimism and Concern in the Lives of African Americans

By Judi Lerman

Recent research examining attitudes and opinions of African American adults highlights high levels of great optimism and deep concerns about significant aspects of their lives. African Americans’ Lives Today  (NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health, June 2013), finds that 86% express satisfaction with their lives. Respondents convey a very positive perception about their communities overall and their hopes of achieving the American dream of a home and financial security. In contrast, we also see great concerns, especially around jobs, finances and protection in case of a major illness. This dichotomy is consistent with previous research which shows that African Americans are more optimistic than whites, although they also express the greatest level of concern about their life circumstances.

The State of Black Family Survey, released this month from Ebony Magazine and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, confirms this high satisfaction level, with almost nine in ten describing themselves as very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their quality of life.


Overall, 82% of those surveyed say that they are satisfied with the area in which they live, with 44% very satisfied and 38% somewhat satisfied. Those who live in more racially mixed areas have an even higher level of satisfaction (86%), while among those who live in predominantly African American areas, three-quarters report being satisfied (NPR/RWJF/Harvard).

In comparison, the overall population was asked in a Pew Social Trends Poll (August, 2013) about their satisfaction with their communities; 89% said that they were satisfied with their community as a place to live.

When African Americans were asked to grade various aspects of their communities (NPR/RWKF/Harvard), 88% of respondents give top grades (A or B) to their fire department (55% and 33%, respectively) and eight in ten did the same for sanitation workers (40% and 42%). In contrast, just over half of those polled give the same two grades to the police department (22% and 32%), level of safety (20% and 32%), and the school system (21% and 31%). Childcare services receive an even lower rating with 41% giving it an A or B (16% and 25%), but this may be at least partially explained by the almost three in ten who didn’t know or refused to answer.


Most African Americans polled state that they are satisfied with their lives (86%), with almost half reporting that they are very satisfied. The Ebony Magazine/Kellogg Foundation study concurs, with 88% saying that they are very or somewhat satisfied with their quality of life.

When asked if their lives in general have gotten better, worse or stayed the same in recent years, more than half of African Americans say they have gotten better, 37% say it’s stayed about the same, and only one in ten say their lives have gotten worse. Among those who are working or retired, over 80% believe that they have been successful in their careers (NPR/RWJF/Harvard).

Queried about achieving the American dream, defined as “Having a nice home and financial security for you and your family,” one in five say that they already have achieved it, three-fifths believe that they eventually will, and only 16% feel that they won’t ever get there.


African Americans rate the school their child attends better than the school system in general. When asked to grade the school system (regardless of whether the respondent had a child in school), 21% award it an A, while 31% give a B. Among parents with school-age children, there is a higher level of satisfaction: 32% identify their school as excellent and 38% as good. As with community satisfaction, more parents rate their schools that are racially mixed as excellent or good (77%) in comparison with schools that are predominantly African American (61%). The vast majority of their children attend public school (81%) and one in ten attend public charter schools.


There is more concern, uncertainty, and instability when the researchers turn to the subject of jobs. Among employed African Americans, 44% are very or somewhat concerned that they or someone in their household may be back in the job market in the next twelve months. A similar amount, four in ten, of the unemployed who live with someone else are concerned that a household member will lose their job.

The Ebony/Kellogg poll finds the unemployment rate among African Americans at 20% and notes that this is “significantly higher than the official 12 percent rate for Blacks...” This may be at least in part due to the official numbers not including those who aren’t actively looking for work anymore, known as "discouraged" workers.


In describing their personal financial situation, there is a significant divide among African Americans: while 41% describe it as good (and another eight percent say excellent), the rest, half of those surveyed, say it’s not so good (33%) or poor (17%) (NPR/RWJF/Harvard). Interestingly, these numbers are higher than in a poll of Americans from Pew Research in January 2014 which found six percent rating their financial situation as excellent, 34% said good, 38% replied only fair, while 22% said poor.

Overall, among the African Americans polled by NPR/RWJF/Harvard, there is more pessimism among those who say their finances are not so good or poor, as could be expected. They are more concerned that they or someone in their household will be out of work in the next year; they are less confident that they could pay for a major illness in the future; and they have had more trouble paying medical bills in the past year. They also give lower grades to their safety from crime and to their police department.


Healthcare is of real concern. Forty-five percent of African Americans say they are not too confident or not at all confident that they would have enough money or health insurance to pay for a major illness, even though three-quarters of respondents state that they are covered by some form of health insurance or health plan. In comparison, a January 2014 poll from the Associated Press/GfK Knowledge Networks finds that 83% of Americans are covered by a health care plan or insurance.

The recent Ebony/Kellogg survey cautioned that, “Blacks are 55 percent more likely than Whites to be without health insurance, which may account for survey respondents’ embrace of the Affordable Care Act, with one-third already signed up or planning to do so.”

On a more positive note in the NPR/RWJF/Harvard study, eight in ten say that they are very (47%) or somewhat (34%) satisfied with the health care services that they and their family have been receiving, and three-quarters report that the last time they or a family member got sick, they got care from one of the best doctors in their area.


Finally, respondents were asked if they have encountered various forms of discrimination (NPR/RWJF/Harvard). Almost half report that a few times a year or more, they have been treated with less courtesy or respect than other people and that they have received poorer service than other people at restaurants or stores. Four in ten say that a few times a year or more, people act as if they think the respondent is not smart, a quarter state that people act as if they are afraid of them, and 16% report being threatened or harassed. Among those who have experienced these behaviors, half believe that the main reason is their race.

The Ebony/Kellogg Foundation survey found that “fourteen percent of respondents said they face discrimination ‘very often,’ while 44 percent said they ‘sometimes’ face discrimination.