You'll Never Guess What Americans Consider the Least Concerning U.S. Problem


The average American has certainly had a full plate of concerns and problems to contend with over the past five years. The U.S. economy has thrown us the deepest recession in 70 years, complete with a housing bubble and credit crisis, all while the government lowered and then re-raised payroll taxes. In addition, if health-care coverage wasn't part of their everyday lives, then the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known better as Obamacare, which is set to go into full effect for individuals on Jan. 1, will ensure that one way or another people obtain health insurance or pay an end-of-the-year penalty.

In sum, the past five years have resoundingly transformed a somewhat predictable economy into a cauldron of uncertainty.

Keeping this in mind, I was very intrigued with a Gallup poll conducted last week that questioned some 2,000-plus respondents on what they considered the top problem in the U.S. to be. The choices the respondents were given to select from were as follows (in no particular order):

  • Government/Congress/Politicians

  • Federal deficit

  • Economy in general

  • Poor leadership/The president/Corruption/Abuse of power

  • Health care

  • Education

  • Unemployment/Jobs

  • Immigration

  • Ethics/Moral-religious-family decline/Dishonesty

Now just imagine you were given this question: "What is the most important problem in the U.S. right now?" What would your answer be?

Here's how America responded :

What's the Most Important Problem in the U.S.?

% Respondents

Economy in general




Health care




Federal deficit


Ethics/Moral-religious-family decline/Dishonesty


Poor leadership/The president/Corruption/Abuse of power






Source: Gallup. Figures do not add to 100% because of rounding.

This makes sense
Some factors here do make a lot of sense. Take, for instance, the "economy in general," which is still the biggest concern in the minds of Americans. Slow growth in consumer spending is still keeping many small businesses from ramping up expansion plans for fear of wasting their hard-earned money, and it's a primary factor that's keeping the economy from kicking into that next gear. Even with the Federal Reserve having targeted interest rates at historically low levels for years now, the American growth engine hasn't taken off.

Despite this big fear, worries about the economy have been abating on a steady basis since late 2008, when the same Gallup poll at the time noted 58% of respondents selecting the economy in general as America's top concern. One key component to that end has been the stabilizing power of the U.S. stock markets. The Dow Jones Industrial Average , an iconic symbol of American multinational companies, and the broader-based S&P 500 have both more than doubled from their lows set in March 2009. As a strong basis for investment in this country, these indexes have helped add credence in the psyches of investors to the belief the past can indeed stay in the past, and that investors should be focusing on the bright future.

It also hasn't hurt that the housing sector, which crippled so many family households, is finally on the mend, with home prices rising by 12% in the United States' 20 largest cities in June, according to the Case-Shiller Composite Index -- the fastest rate of growth since 2006.

But one particular answer among these respondents had me scratching my head, as it made little sense.

Source: White House on Flickr.

What's wrong with America?
Why, oh, why is education dead last among the problems that we need to address? I'm not in any way saying that Congress, immigration, health care, or any of the other issues listed above aren't important, so don't misconstrue my words; but the top two concerns smashed together -- the economy in general and unemployment/jobs -- can both be solved by improving education in this country.

In other words, you improve education and you essentially eradicate HALF of the problems in this country, according to the respondents of this survey (49%).

Just last week we examined the single biggest problem with America's labor force: underemployment. Based on U-6, a U.S. Department of Labor Statistics measurement that factors in the unemployment rate as well as workers who have accepted part-time employment but wish to work full-time, 14.3% of the American workforce, or one in seven, is currently underutilized!

The onus of wrongdoing as is related to underutilization isn't necessarily on the students here entirely, but on both employers and colleges as well for failing to prepare students for real-world challenges and guiding academia on what degrees they're currently looking for.

Before the recession, broad-based degrees helped establish versatility, which opened the door to multiple career paths for college grads. That isn't the case anymore, with enterprises looking for specialized skill sets in a very difficult full-time job environment. Your degree can mean the difference between finding a good-paying job quickly, or being forced to seek a paycheck in a situation where you'd be considered underemployed or overqualified.

Now for the good news
Whether you believe it or not, education -- be it a lack thereof or the wrong type of education -- is at the root of a majority of America's problems. But there's still hope.

A recent study conducted by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce highlighted some of the worst degrees in terms of unemployment but also pointed out in the process some of the most in-demand degrees. From an economic, investable, and personal perspective, boosting education and awareness in these degree areas would be beneficial for everyone involved.

Nursing: Nursing is a huge winner, with an unemployment rate of a mere 4.8% -- nearly 3% below the national average unemployment rate. Nursing demand is only expected to increase, with baby boomers beginning to hit retirement age and Obamacare set to shuffle millions of newly insured Americans into the health-care system. To put it another way, the medical system is going to have its hands full for decades to come, and it will need as many trained staff members as it can get.

UnitedHealth Group , the nation's largest health-care provider, for instance, has plans to hire close to 600 people in the Carolinas alone, with a good chunk of that hiring being nurses and nurse practitioners. These health-benefits organizations aren't hiding the fact that Obamacare will keep them busy, which should give colleges and the public a clue to start thinking in terms of nursing degrees.

Marketing and market research: Just hearing about this degree makes me cringe, as it immediately brings up memories of telemarketers calling me at all hours of the night to sell me their wares. However, marketing has evolved far beyond just traditional cold-calling these days. With the world having gone global in scale over the past two decades thanks to the advent of the Internet and far better infrastructure in burgeoning emerging markets like China, Brazil, Russia and India, a degree in marketing can translate into something as simple as a strategic marketing or advertising job with a multinational corporation to something as complex as a financial market analyst with a Wall Street firm. Because of the diversity of the degree and the need for marketing even at the simplest of businesses, it's a degree with an unemployment rate of just 6.6%.

Last year, for examples, a Forbesreport identified Sears Holdings as one of the nation's largest companies seeking marketing help, with, at the time, 123 job openings in marketing -- far and away higher than any other major corporation. To me that isn't too surprising, as the struggling retailer needs fresh ideas and a new image to help transform it into a company that can once again attract younger consumers without having to get into pricing wars with its competition.

Veterinary medicine: For this last one I'm going rogue from Georgetown's list and introducing a third area of undermet educational needs with high growth potential -- veterinary medicine. I know this firsthand, since I was about halfway through a veterinary medicine degree in college 14 years ago before switching majors to economics. Between 2010 and 2020, veterinarian job growth is forecast to increase by 36% thanks to the growing acceptance of pets into the American household and as part of the family. To that end, veterinarians have an unemployment rate of just 0.6% (that's right ... zero point six percent!) according to U.S. News.

We only need to look so far as PetSmart to see how transformative this change has been. PetSmart, which offers an array of retail pet products in its stores, as well as grooming and veterinary services, has delivered 126% revenue growth since 2003 -- consistently growing its top line every year, even when the economy hit a major roadblock in 2009.

We've got college-educated people out there. Fix it!
Simply put, education should be a bigger emphasis in this country, but it's not. Within these studies we have the knowledge to exact change that will lower unemployment and underemployment and create a happier and more productive workforce. Ultimately, this should improve economic growth and boost the top-line results of big corporations that could lead to a sustainable long-term rally in the Dow Jones and S&P 500. Without a big shift toward correcting our underutilization and educational problems, I don't see this rally as sustainable for much longer.

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Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool recommends PetSmart and UnitedHealth Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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