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UnitedHealth Group Inc. (UNH), Sears Holdings Corp (SHLD), PetSmart, Inc. (PETM): You’ll Never Guess What Americans Consider the Least Concerning U.S. Problem

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UnitedHealth Group IncThe 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 23%
Unemployment/jobs 19%
Health care 11%
Government/Politics/Politicians 10%
Federal deficit 8%
Ethics/Moral-religious-family decline/Dishonesty 7%
Poor leadership/The president/Corruption/Abuse of power 6%
Immigration 6%
Education 5%

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 (Dow Jones Indices:.DJI), 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.

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.

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