Short answer: younger people, non-white residents, and Bostonians

We at MPG have been tracking consumer sentiment since the end of 2010, as part of our quarterly Trend Monitor. So when we read last week about a new survey that found that black and Hispanic Americans have become more optimistic than their white counterparts, we wanted to know if the same was true here in Massachusetts. We found that non-white Bay Staters are more optimistic than white residents – but feelings on the economy also depend on other factors, including where in the state one lives.

How we did it

We track attitudes about the current and future economy using a tool called the Index of Consumer Sentiment (ICS). For this analysis, we calculated the ICS for different demographics (race, age, gender, etc) as well as for four different regions of the state. We did that for every quarter we have the data for, then we averaged the results to get a single figure for each subgroup:

ICS demo

Click to enlarge.

As you can see, non-white residents are more optimistic about economy than are white residents. We see a similar gap on another question we ask in these quarterly polls. On average, only 47 percent of whites felt the Commonwealth was headed in the right direction, compared to 60 percent of non-whites.

Not just about race

The Massachusetts numbers seem to confirm the national picture, but that’s not the whole story. Perhaps the most interesting finding is the difference in consumer sentiment across different regions of the state. Bostonians and those in the innermost suburbs have a better-than-average view of the economy, and those in the outer Boston suburbs are right about at the state average. But residents of the Southeast and Western and Central Massachusetts are below the state average.

This finding suggests that the concerns about regional equity, which played a key role in the recent debate over transportation funding, do have some basis in public opinion. At least as far as consumer sentiment goes, the divide between Metro Boston and the rest of the state is very real.

Some other key divides:

  • Men feel better about the economy than women. That’s somewhat surprising, given news that more men than women lost their jobs during the recession.
  • The 18-29 age group feels better about the economy than older residents. Many of these younger residents are either in college now, or do not have direct experience with the re-recession job market.
  • Clear Partisan Divide. Democrats score ten points above average and Republicans 10 points lower. Independents fall somewhere in the middle but below the state average.

What does it mean?

These numbers give us a quick sketch of which residents are happy with the economy versus which are frustrated. A next step would dig even further, looking at responses to the five component questions of the Index. Are some subgroups happier with the current state of things but worried about the future, or vice versa? Are younger folks, for example, less satisfied now but more optimistic about the future than their parents or grandparents? These are types of questions we intend to explore.

It’s also important to understand the relationship between these demographic groups. For example, are younger people or non-whites happier because those groups also skew Democratic, and therefore have greater faith in President Obama and Governor Patrick? Does the higher number in Boston reflect the more diverse ethnic background in the city, or is it really a sign that the Boston economy is stronger than elsewhere? In other words, which of these demographic labels matter the most when describing and predicting someone’s feelings about the economy?

Perhaps most intriguing is the question: do people’s attitudes about the economy match up in some way with how the Massachusetts economy is actually doing, in terms of jobs or GDP growth? Does public opinion predict changes in the economy, does it lag behind, or is there no clear relationship?

Look answers to these questions in future blog posts – and possibly in the next issue of Commonwealth Magazine.