Jobs, drugs top concerns for Bay State residents

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While race relations and the threat of terrorism dominate the national news, Massachusetts voters at the state level are more concerned about jobs, the economy, and the worsening opioid epidemic, according to local polling data reviewed by the NewBostonPost.

Sixteen percent of respondents named jobs as the topmost concern, followed by the opioid crisis at 13 percent, according to the Suffolk University poll released in May. That reflects a shift from six months ago when Suffolk found that illegal immigration and the state budget were foremost on the minds of voters, with 12 percent of respondents identifying each as their top issue. In that poll, 11 percent identified drugs as their number one issue, while 10 percent pointed to jobs.

The top issues were selected from among a list of 10. Voters were asked to name what they thought was “the most important issue” that the Baker administration faced.

In the most recent poll, the other eight issues ranked as follows: education, 12 percent; infrastructure repairs, 9 percent; health care, 8 percent; state budget, 7 percent; illegal immigration, 7 percent; taxes, 5 percent; the MBTA, 5 percent; and crime, 4 percent.

In a state where an estimated 1,526 lives were lost to overdoses last year, it is, perhaps, no surprise that the opioid epidemic is weighing heavily on the public’s mind, especially as the crisis appears to be worsening. This past March alone, 146 residents died of overdoses, up from 60 in January, according to the latest data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

The epidemic appears to be affecting public opinion on other, related matters. For example, the May Suffolk poll found that 46 percent of the public would vote against legalizing marijuana for recreational use with 43 percent in support. In 2012, 63 percent of voters had backed medical marijuana.

“Massachusetts voters are turning over a new leaf on pot,” David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, said in a news release accompanying the disclosure of the poll results. “With the issue of opioids in the minds of voters, traditional bases of support like women and union households are now opposing this measure by wide margins.”

The May poll was conducted before the spate of recent terrorist attacks across the globe and the heightened concerns about police, race, and public safety that have arisen in the wake of the shooting in Dallas. Nonetheless, they appear to indicate a trend in public opinion and are consistent with the results from at least one other recent major poll.

In February, a poll released by UMass Amherst, WBZ-TV, WBZ NewsRadio found that the economy and jobs were the dominant concerns of 18 percent of likely voters in the then-upcoming Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. Among Republicans, 20 percent cited the economy and jobs as their main concern. For Democrats, 17 percent agreed that the economy and jobs were paramount.

Jobs and the economy have crept up as an issue even as Massachusetts appears to continue its recovery and outperform many of its neighbors.

In May, the unemployment rate in the Bay State stood at 4.2 percent, putting the Bay State in the top third of states with the lowest unemployment rates—well ahead of neighbors like Connecticut and Rhode Island where the rates are well over 5 percent.

The Massachusetts unemployment rate is also down from 4.9 percent in May 2015. The state economy did shed 6,400 jobs between April and May, but state authorities blamed that on a “temporary dispute” in the information sector in a news release announcing the figures.

Other indicators seem to be positive as well. For example, in the fourth quarter of 2015, the Massachusetts economy grew by 2.6, about one point, or more, ahead of every other New England state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Total personal income also continues its steady climb in the state, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

How then to explain anxieties over jobs and the economy? Evan Horowitz of the Boston Globe has pointed to the two ways the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts jobs: one is based on business payrolls; the other is a household survey. While the business information paints a rosy picture, the household data suggests the beginnings of a possible downturn in jobs.

Local fears over jobs could also be more a reflection of national trends that conditions in the state. Last year, two groups, Marketplace and Edison Research, launched a new index to measure economic anxiety. The May 2016 poll found that 32 percent of Americans were so worried about their economic situation that they were losing sleep over it—up from 28 percent in September 2015. And 41 percent of respondents — 5 percent fewer — are confident about their ability to get a new job should they lost their current employment.

“[T]here have been signs of economic uncertainty. The Fed’s being cautious on interest rates. The May unemployment report showed poor job growth. And on the campaign trail, the talk is about economic fairness and jobs lost to trade deals,” noted Andrea Seabrook, a Senior Editor at Marketplace, which is affiliated with the University of Southern California.

“The latest Marketplace-Edison Research poll shows Americans’ stress over their personal financial situation building even before Brexit,” Seabrook added. “Americans’ responses showed that, in May, our country’s anxiety level climbed to its highest point since the beginning of our poll.”