Like Money, Optimism Is Unevenly Distributed

Last year had its good points, no doubt, but a sense of general prosperity wasn’t one of them. A survey by WSL Strategic Retail asked adults whether their household’s financial situation had improved in the past year. Just 25 percent said it had. Even among people with household income of $100,000-plus, a tepid 39 percent said their finances got better. That matches the number in this cohort who think the economy in general improved in the prior six months. There was a similar pattern in the $50,000-99,999 bracket: 33 percent said their finances had improved, and 31 percent believed the economy in general had done so.

There was no such consistency, though, in the under-$50,000 bracket. Though 23 percent said the economy gained in the prior six months, barely half as many (12 percent) felt their own finances had picked up in the past year. As the chart indicates, respondents in this bottom bracket are less likely than their high-income counterparts to feel optimistic about the year ahead. Still, the number of people in this cohort who foresee gains is nearly triple the number who think their finances got better in the past year—a sign of the extent to which optimism is the default position for many Americans.

Even women aren’t unrelievedly glum! There was, as the chart shows, a gender gap in optimism. But this may reflect perceptions of the recent past as much as a disposition toward the future. Just 18 percent of women (vs. 38 percent of men) feel the economy gained in the previous six months; 21 percent of women (vs. 28 percent of men) think their own finances improved in the past year.