Gulf South Index: The Case for Normal America

In a world with 24/7 access to not only the media but also each other, our lives seem to exist in the extremes. On a scale of one to 10, most public issues are treated as an 11. The biggest personalities and loudest voices dominate the virtual world – which feels more like the real world now. It’s hard not to get sucked into this way of thinking when everyone else is thinking it too.

However, the average American’s wants and needs are a lot less complicated than it seems. Our behaviors are also pretty similar too. We have more in common than we think. The latest edition of the Gulf South Index by The Ehrhardt Group and Causeway Solutions shines a light on what’s important to us and what is not.

1. We’re really worried about the economy; everything else is secondary.

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The always-on hot-button topics in the country act as a dividing factor, pitting those with different priorities against each other. However, the economy concerns both national and Gulf South citizens at a much higher rate than any other issue.

What’s second place: The second highest-ranked issue, crime and public safety, is important to 11% of Gulf South respondents, compared to the economy at 43%.

Generational divides: 18–24-year-olds rank the economy as the most important issue. However, they place a higher priority on gun issues and public safety than the elder age groups.  

This is not all that surprising:  41% of Gulf South residents report being worse off financially in 2023 than two years ago. When financial tensions are high (which they currently, undeniably, are), we are  inclined to put a heavier focus on the issues that impact us most directly: our finances. For example, the environment, an imminently important issue to many, sees declines in perceived importance in times when people are much more concerned about being able to afford necessities. We look out for ourselves first and foremost.

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2. We’re not so different – especially in what else we value.

In March, the Wall Street Journal partnered with the NORC Research Center at the University of Chicago to conduct a poll on American outlooks, happiness, divides and values. Although some of the research provides dismal results, there is proof that the oft-mentioned “Divided America” has more in common with each other than we do differently.

Things that make us feel good: 93% of WSJ’s respondents value hard work as very or somewhat important, 90% feel similarly about tolerance for others. Self-fulfillment, community involvement and patriotism all have similarly high scores. Unsurprisingly, so does money, valued at 90%.

A changing landscape: 38% of Americans value patriotism as very important, this pales in comparison to a similar study from 1998, where 70% ranked it as such. Marriage, religion and having children have also declined during the past 25 years. For better or for worse, the values of normal Americans are changing – but they seem to be changing collectively.

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3. We are still mostly satisfied with our personal lives.

Most of our algorithmic information streams try to convey how terrible everything is, how terrible everyone feels, how we are divided beyond fixing. Some of this might be attributed to how we feel economically, but we do feel notably better about our personal lives. Especially our families and, maybe surprisingly, our housing situations.

Gallup’s poll notes that satisfaction has held steady with little fluctuation- 2022’s score was 85%, and 2023 holds average at 83%.

What we’re least happy about: No surprises here, household income has the lowest satisfaction rate, at 71%.

“Backyard optimism” remains real though: The closer we get to our own backyards, the better we feel. 34% of national and 36% Gulf South residents are dissatisfied with how things are going in the United States, according to the Gulf South Index. 32% and 37%, respectively, feel that way about their state. But when it comes to the closest parts of a person’s life – their family, job, and local community – their satisfaction scores are much higher. What brings us the most comfort and satisfaction are those we keep closest to us, regardless of our financial standing, political opinions or even our geographical location. What makes us happiest is consistent across the board.

Amidst constant news of a “Divided America” we must remember (and prioritize) “normal America.” The ways in which we are not so different – our acutely similar values, familiar fears and closest companions – are not only real, but can help us collectively to make better, well-informed choices for a happier America. 

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