Their Economic Outlook Is Muddled, But At Least It’s Not Utterly Hopeless

Ask people about the nation’s economy and the answers will convince you we’re all on the way to the poorhouse. Responses are less gloomy when you ask them about their own financial condition. Still another picture emerges when you ask how they expect their finances to look in the future. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press gives a comprehensive look at the mishmash of opinions Americans hold.

Polls usually find people saying the economy is going from bad to worse, regardless of actual conditions, and this one is no exception. Asked how they’d rate economic conditions in the U.S. today, 4 percent of respondents termed them “excellent,” 30 percent “good,” 45 percent “only fair” and 19 percent “poor.” People are scarcely more upbeat about how economic conditions in the country as a whole will be a year from now: 20 percent expect they’ll be “better,” 22 percent “worse” and 55 percent “about the same as now.”

For better or worse, Americans’ sense of their personal prospects is often detached from their take on the nation at large. Rating their own finances, 7 percent said they are in “excellent shape,” 39 percent in “good shape,” 37 percent in “only fair shape” and 15 percent in “poor shape.” There’s a sharper disparity between the personal and national outlook when people are asked how (if at all) their financial condition will change over the course of the next year: A majority think it will improve “a lot” (10 percent) or “some” (51 percent); 16 percent think it will “stay the same”; and about one in five think it will worsen “a little” (14 percent) or “a lot” (5 percent).

Getting at people’s finances in more personal terms, the survey asked current workers, “Do you now earn enough money to lead the kind of life you want, or not?” Respondents were narrowly divided, at 46 percent “yes” vs. 53 percent “no.” Those on the “no” side don’t necessarily expect to stay there, though. Of that 53 percent, more than half (28 percent) think they’ll earn enough in the future to lead the life they want.

While economists express alarm about the amount of debt Americans carry, the survey’s respondents at least claim to be mainly unconcerned about the matter. When asked about the money they owe on credit cards and installment loans (but not on home mortgages), just 8 percent confessed that it’s “a lot more” than they can afford, with another 15 percent saying it’s “a little more” than they can handle. Thirty percent said they owe about what they can afford, 24 percent owe less than they can afford and 15 percent don’t owe anything at all. Five percent said they don’t have credit cards or installment loans.