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How Monatanans view their economy.

How do Montanans view the state economy? What are their general preferences for economic growth? And how do they view major players in the economic arena? The Bureau surveyed state residents' opinions on these and other matters in 1982 and again in late 1991 as part of the Montana Poll. The following discussion is based on results from he these two polls.

Economic Growth: Perceptions and Context

Economic growth was one of the first topics addressed in the Montana Poll. In 1981 - as now - economic growth was a live topic. Some suggested then that Montanans were opposed to economic growth, or at least were being perceived that way. So the 1981 poll looked at Montanans' perceptions of economic growth, as well as their preferences and expectations. Specifically, the 1981 poll explored state residents' basic conceptual understanding of the topic. What did economic growth represent to them? Was it a negative or a positive? Were they extreme or moderate in their views?

In 1981, the vast majority of Montanans held moderate opinions on economic growth. Most Montanans equated economic growth with conditions that generally reflect a healthy economy, citing such positives as: business growth and business stability; more employment, full employment, or less unemployment; improved individual well-being, though not necessarily prosperity; reduced need for public assistance; improved financial conditions in the area; and so on.

Very few in the poll (under 5 percent) equated economic growth with negative impacts such as inflation, rising prices, environmental damage, or community disruption.

The Bureau polled Montanans on these (and other) conceptual questions in 1981 and again in 1982, with no significant difference in results. These conceptual questions were not repeated in the 1991 poll, but we believe such conceptual understanding has not changed, and that most Montanans do understand what economic growth is - even though they disagree about how much and what kind is desirable, and about ways to achieve it.

It's also important to note that the 1980s were a rough decade for many Montanans. Bureau director Paul Polzin estimates that, overall, the state's economy now is about 5 percent below what it was ten years ago.

That, along with the national situation, may explain some key results of our 1991 poll. Namely, 1991 respondents expressed a stronger sentiment for economic growth; yet they were more pessimistic about the chances of achieving economic growth in this state.

Preference for Growth

While they may have disagreed on approaches or types, the vast majority of Montana Poll respondents have continually endorsed at least a moderate amount of economic growth. In 1982, when asked what they thought would be best for Montana, about six respondents in ten (63 percent) endorsed a moderate amount of economic growth. About three in ten (28 percent) felt the state needed a greater degree of growth. Only about one respondent in ten (7 percent) wanted little or no growth. (See Figure 1.)

Roughly ten years later, in December 1991, the vast majority again endorsed at least a moderate amount of growth. However, this time more respondents - about four in ten (39 percent) - endorsed a higher level of growth. Somewhat fewer respondents, about five in ten (54 percent), opted for moderate growth.

Various cross-sections of 1991 respondents expressed relatively similar sentiments. A couple of groups, however, were a bit more pronounced in endorsing a higher level of growth.

Among younger respondents under forty-five years of age, sentiments were evenly divided; about as many endorsed strong growth as endorsed moderate growth. By contrast, older Montanans were less divided; they opted for a moderate amount of growth by a margin of two to one. A majority of men endorsed moderate growth. But women were evenly divided between moderate and strong growth.

Thus,. generally, most Montanans in 1982 and again in 1991 preferred a moderate to strong level of economic growth.

Status of the State Economy

We have some sense of what they prefer. But how do Montanans see the actual state economy, and what do they expect for it? And has this assessment changed over time?

In the midst of recession last December, a majority of poll respondents were disparaging about Montana's economy. Over half (58 percent) said the state's economy was bad, and a good share considered the situation to be very bad. Understandably, respondents at the lower end of the income scale were among the most critical.

Even so, 40 percent of last December's respondents said the state economy was doing well at the time. The groups most complimentary were elderly Montanans (aged sixty-five and older), and Republicans.

Outlook for the State Economy

Last December Montanans were more pessimistic overall about the state's economic future than they were about its (then) current economic status. Six respondents in ten (62 percent) were decidedly negative in their outlook for the state's economy over the next five years. And only 27 percent expressed a positive outlook. (See Figure 2.)

A pessimistic outlook prevailed among all respondent groups, even those who considered the economy to be doing pretty well at the time. Interestingly, though, pessimists were not significantly more likely to endorse a high degree of economic growth for the state than other respondents.

Influencing Growth: Who Helps

and Who Hinders?

Growth can be influenced or impacted by a variety of economic and political institutions. In both the 1982 and 1991 polls, we asked about six in particular: small businesses in general; major Montana corporations; Montana labor unions; environmental groups in the state; state government; and the public in general.

Specifically, we asked respondents whether they thought each group was helping economic growth in the state, hindering it, or having no impact either way.

As Table 1 shows, public opinion on this question shifted somewhat between mid-1982 and late 1991. The table lists groups in high to low order based on the 1991 proportion who said that institution helps the state's economic growth.

Of all these institutions, only Montana small business comes up smelling like a rose. The vast majority of respondents viewed small business generally as helping the state's economic growth; this sentiment prevailed in 1982 and was even more pronounced in 1991. Moreover, it was prevalent among all respondent groups.


Perhaps this result is not surprising if one considers that the majority of Montana's businesses are "small" businesses. Also, at the local level in Montana, much of the discussion about economic growth focuses on small business.

Public opinion about larger businesses - Montana's major corporations - does appear to have shifted over the decade. In 1982, barely four respondents in ten (38 percent) credited major corporations with helping economic growth; about as many (36 percent) criticized them as being a hindrance. However, by 1991, public opinion about Montana's major corporations was distinctly more positive: Roughly six respondents in ten (58 percent) viewed them as a help to growth; barely two in ten (17 percent) considered them a hindrance.

Opinion about the general public's impact on economic growth did not shift during the decade. Both in 1982 and in 1991, roughly half the respondents said the general public was a helpful force. Only 15 percent saw the public as a hindrance generally; roughly three respondents in ten said the public had no real impact.

Public opinion underwent a noticeable change over the decade regarding the role of labor unions in economic growth. This shift in Montana public opinion may reflect the general decline in labor unions' influence - which in turn reflects the significant employment changes of recent years.

Last December, public opinion was more evenly divided than it had been years earlier. In 1991, about a third (33 percent) of the respondents were critical of unions; almost as many (29 percent) credited unions with being a help to growth; only slightly fewer (24 percent) said unions have no impact at all. Compare that with 1982 poll results: Almost half (47 percent) saw unions as a hindrance; only about a quarter (23 percent) said unions helped the economy; 17 percent said unions had no impact. Thus, fewer people today see unions as a negative factor in economic growth. Fewer see unions as having any impact at all.

One of the more significant shifts in public opinion over the decade concerned state government. In mid-1982, four respondents in ten (41 percent) said state government was helping economic growth; roughly three in ten (29 percent) said the state had no impact either way. Only 16 percent viewed state government as a hindrance then.

However, in late 1991, almost half (47 percent) the respondents said state government was hindering economic growth. A fourth (25 percent) credited state government with being a help, and about two in ten (19 percent) felt it had no impact either way. More Montanans today feel state government does have an impact, for good or ill, on economic growth.

Finally, we asked respondents about the influence of Montana's environmental groups. In 1982, almost half (46 percent) viewed environmental groups as a hindrance to economic growth. The remaining respondents were relatively divided, viewing environmental groups either as a help (19 percent) or as having no impact (24 percent). In 1991, roughly six respondents in ten (59 percent) said environmental groups hindered economic growth, a noticeable increase from 1982.

However, it's important to note that "hindering" growth isn't necessarily an irresponsible act - at least in the public view. We did not repeat this question in 1991, but in 1982, we asked respondents whether they thought environmental (and other) groups were acting responsibly or not.

Even though the prevailing view at that time held that environmental groups were a hindrance, a pronounced majority also viewed the actions of these groups - given their concerns and objectives - as responsible. As one Montanan put it, "They're acting responsibly in what they do, but what they do hurts industry and the economy."

Impact of Economic Growth on

Individual Standards of Living

People often see economic growth in terms of forces operating outside their own lives. But do they also see any direct link between economic growth and the lives of individuals such as themselves? Do they equate economic growth with an improved standard of living for the average individual or for themselves?

In 1982, we asked people about the impact of economic growth generally on the overall quality of life, and, more specifically, on standard of living - for the average person and for them personally.

In general, pronounced majorities said economic growth resulted in an improved quality of life and standard of living, but more so for the "average" Montanan than for themselves personally. We asked only about the impact of growth on their own standard of living in 1991's poll. By this measure, opinion has shifted somewhat since 1982. (See Figure 3.)

In 1982, over half the respondents (53 percent) believed that their own standard of living improves as the state economy grows. Significantly fewer (45 percent) believed that ten years later. Slightly more Montanans (48 percent) believed economic growth has no impact either way. Hardly any respondents in either poll equated economic growth with a decline in their own standard of living.

A distressing pattern emerged among respondent groups regarding this question: Elderly Montanans, women, lower-income persons, those living in the more rural and less-populated counties of the state, and those who have lived in the state over twenty years were least likely to equate state economic growth with improvement in their own standard of living. By contrast, men generally and persons at the high end of the income scale did anticipate personal benefit as a result of state economic growth.

Thus, respondent groups traditionally associated with economic "have-not" status don't appear to expect that economic growth will benefit them personally. Groups traditionally associated with economic "have" status do appear to expect personal benefit from economic growth in the state.


This final sullen note may simply be an unfortunate reaction to a decade which has been tough on many Montanans.

It's important to remember that while Montanans apparently aren't any too happy about the state's economic condition or its outlook, they're certainly not alone. Americans overall are expressing similar concerns about the U.S. economy.

Despite these concerns, Montanans do appear to understand economic growth generally, and they continue to endorse at least a moderate amount of growth for the state.


The Bureau began the Montana Poll in 1981 with co-sponsorship from the Great Falls Tribune. An ongoing, statewide survey of Montana public opinion, the poll covers a variety of topics and issues - economic, social, governmental, political, and the like.

Montana Poll interviews are conducted by telephone, as are most of the Bureau's general public opinion surveys. The respondent sample is obtained through a two-stage random sampling procedure. A random-digit telephone sampling program generates the initial sample of telephone numbers, both listed and unlisted. Then, once a household is reached, interviewers use a second random sampling procedure to select one household member for the interview.

This two-part procedure assures that the sample is a representative cross-section of Montana adults. This representative sample makes it possible to attribute survey results to the larger adult population.

An experienced interviewing staff works from Bureau offices under direct supervision. We standardize and control the sampling and the procedures, including the way questions are asked. This rigorous handling of procedures, instrument, and data ensures that the results reflect what's actually out there in the public mind, and are not the result of procedural flaws.
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Title Annotation:includes realated article
Author:Wallwork, Susan Selig
Publication:Montana Business Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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