Still Tightfisted, Even if Cheerier

A study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press notes a curious divide in the public mood: Increasing optimism about the economy and their own finances “has not caused people to open their wallets: The proportion saying they have cut back on personal spending remains as high as it was earlier this year.”

Pew’s own polling (fielded earlier this month) helps explain the anomaly: There is still a lot of economic fear, and it’s more of a factor than current financial hardship in motivating consumers’ austerities. People who said they’ve cut their spending were asked whether they’ve done so because their finances have gotten worse or because they’re worried that their finances might worsen in the future. While 36 percent picked the former, 50 percent chose the latter. (Five percent said “both,” and the rest gave some other answer or declined to respond.)

And while moods may have brightened a little, many consumers have no choice but to economize. In a CBS News/New York Times poll this month, 22 percent said their income is “not enough to meet your bills and obligations”; another 49 percent said it’s “just enough” to do so. In any case, the improvement in consumers’ spirits has been spotty at best. In NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling this month, 17 percent of respondents said they’re “very satisfied” with their own financial situation, while another 38 percent said they’re “somewhat satisfied.” These numbers are just a few percentage points higher than those in the February round of this poll.

Another survey finds an unusual inversion in consumers’ view of their own prospects vs. their outlook on the world at large. Americans are typically more upbeat about their personal circumstances than about conditions in the wider world. In American Research Group polling this month, though, the number of respondents saying they think their own household’s finances will be better a year from now (36 percent) was sharply lower than the number predicting that the national economy will be better then (51 percent). In a country where personal optimism is almost a duty, that’s a telling sign of how badly people have been shaken.