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“One-Third of a Nation”
Roughly a third of citizens across global democracies are experiencing serious economic pain from rising prices. The domestic and international consequences may be severe.
Franklin Roosevelt’s famous second inaugural address discussed the economic pressures facing “one-third of a nation” still reeling from the Great Depression: “In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.”
Obviously, the situation in 1937 when FDR spoke to Americans was much more dire than today with many of the policy options for helping people who were out of work and without resources still in their infancy. But looking at recent polling from Global Progress and YouGov across 11 leading democracies, the financial problems of “one-third” of our fellow citizens remain acute as America and other nations continue to deal with the aftermath of the global pandemic.
The survey asked people to evaluate how rising prices are likely to affect them personally. Across all countries, only 4 percent of people say they are fortunate enough to have sufficient income to avoid the sting of rising prices. Most global citizens, 57 percent, say higher prices will impact them in some way but that they should be able to manage with some cutbacks and savings.
In contrast to this more financially stable group, 19 percent of citizens across the world report that higher prices will force them to make major changes in their lives to manage and another 15 percent say they can’t possibly get by with higher prices—34 percent of citizens overall. Examining breakouts by country, a group of “one-third” or more economically distressed people exists in 8 of the 11 countries surveyed, with around 3 in 10 in Australia and Poland and less than a fifth in Sweden reporting serious hardship from rising prices.
Looking closer at the United States, 32 percent of Americans overall find themselves facing serious challenges from inflation with situations varying widely by education level. For example, roughly one quarter of Americans with a 4-year college degree—and only 15 percent of Americans with a postgraduate degree—report serious problems dealing with rising costs. In contrast, 34 percent to 42 percent of Americans without a 4-year college degree report major negative personal impacts from rising prices.
When we say inflation is a political wrecking ball, this “one-third” or more of citizens around the world is decisive. If this many people continue to face extremely shaky financial prospects from higher food, gas, and other household costs, expect major political instability and trouble for sitting governments regardless of whether they come from the left, right, or center.
The geopolitical effects of inflation should not be downplayed either, particularly in relation to support for Ukraine. As the New York Times reported, rising inflation and bleak energy prospects this winter are leading many European citizens to start questioning their own government’s support for arming Ukraine and continuing sanctions on Russia. It’s an open question whether vital backing for the Ukrainian effort can survive the political chaos of sharp inflation in western countries, even in the United States given recent alignment between far-right and far-left forces in Congress.
Citizens want something done to bring down prices but understandably don’t have much patience or wiggle room in dealing with inflation as the situation stabilizes. Diminishing purchasing power for working families will likely dominate all other domestic and international concerns in the near term.
If governing parties around the world want to maintain domestic political support and advance collective security interests—including U.S. Democrats and probably Republicans in short order—they would be wise to remember first President Roosevelt’s call to help those most in need: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”