By most measures, the economy has expanded rapidly over the past year, sending corporate profits up sharply and fueling a long-awaited surge in hiring. The Federal Reserve, citing the continued “solid pace” of expansion, has begun to raise interest rates for the first time in four years.
Yet many Americans seem to feel the current recovery is passing them by. Even though consumer confidence rose in June to its highest level in two years, recent surveys have found consumers more pessimistic about the economy than they were early this year.
A very unscientific survey of MSNBC.com readers bears out this trend. Last week we asked readers whether they felt they are doing better than they were two years ago, when the economy was just emerging from recession.
The answer, overwhelmingly, was no. About 350 readers responded, and about 75 percent expressed a negative view of the economy, with many complaining about low wages, inflation and a lack of work.
To repeat, this survey was not scientific. It is entirely possible, even likely, that people angry about the economy might be more motivated to pound out a note to the editor. They might have more time on their hands, too.
Still, reading their responses offers insight into a vein of ill feeling that Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry hopes to mine as he campaigns to unseat President Bush.
Here is a selection of the letters we received, both positive and negative, edited slightly for length and style.
Let’s see — my wife lost her job and had to take a job that pays less and also made to work six days instead of five. Less family time with less money. They have cut staff (but not the workload) where I work. We barely get by. We can’t take vacations or go anywhere or buy any frills. The "tax cut" was eaten up by high fuel prices, and since the state is getting less from the federal government, the local governments have been getting less, so in turn, taxes and fees have been increased. We work hard and in turn see less and less money for our efforts. We were much better off four years ago.
— Ed K
Are we better off now than two years ago? Absolutely. Two years ago I was unemployed for nearly a full year as I looked for management positions in the salary range I needed to support my family. Today I'm back at work in a choice job at good pay. My spouse just accepted a job with a local company that included a 3 percent raise in pay and a share in the profits. Three months ago we started construction on a home in rural Riverside County, Calif., that will give us a life's dream of acreage, some fruit trees and maybe a horse or two. Considering that two years ago I was near bankruptcy and the loss of our home, I'd have to say that I'm much more positive about the economy today.
— Rich Liddell
My family is far worse off than we were two years ago and definitely worse off than four years ago. My brother-in-law has been out for a year and a half, and all of the people with whom he was laid off are still out of work. He was a test engineer. My stepson and daughter-in-law are currently looking for employment, only to find companies doing most of their hiring through temporary agencies at $8 an hour with no benefits. My husband took a 15 percent pay cut three years ago and has not received it back. Milk prices are $4 a gallon. Gas is $2 a gallon. Groceries are going up. Can't even afford clothes or vacation or to take care of pets!
— Patricia Swanson
We are definitely NOT doing better than two years ago. Our health care premiums have increased, we have seen increases in the price of food and insurance, as well as electricity. I was laid off and lost my benefits. Our daughter, with two college degrees, has not been able to find a job with benefits. Our stock portfolio inches along. We have not received any income tax cuts. Bush has done NOTHING for us!
— C. Waldeck
I work in the computer technology sector. I've seen an increase in available jobs within a 50-mile radius of my home. Two years ago there were no opportunities, and a year ago you might see one to four programmer jobs. Today there is a much greater number of jobs posted and I've been getting calls from recruiters. I started a new job last March at an 8 percent salary increase. Yes, I feel much better off and able to begin paying down some debt.
My wife and I are both college graduates and are struggling to survive. We were both employed in the software industry and now there seem to be few opportunities for employment. We are watching our savings dwindle as we both search for a decent-paying job over the last three years. We are in our 50s, and time is running out for us.
— Bill Levin
We are doing much better than two years ago. We have purchased a new home with a 30-year fixed rate of 5.25 percent. Our new home has already appreciated almost $100,000, from $275,000 to $375,000. I am in retirement and keep getting asked by several school districts to come back as a consultant in special education. Things are great here in Sacramento. We have a movie-star for a governor and we may get a budget done close to on-time for the first time in years!!
— Clinton D. Ritchie
Our economy is horrible. Here in Detroit, Mich., many little shops and factories are closed. Some of these companies have been around for 30 years. I work for a company that was started in 1936 in the same location on Detroit’s east side. This company is very slow, and we have a few employees. I personally know 20 people who have been laid off in the last two years. Some have even exhausted unemployment benefits. We should focus on our economy first. Why spend billions in foreign countries to help build them up while so many factories and people get destroyed.
— Richard Werner
I graduated from college in the jobless summer of 2002. However, with some determination and hard work, I found a moderate-paying job. Coupled with low interest rates, I was able to buy my first home. And with an upward-trending economy, my outlook continues to be optimistic.
From where I sit in the commercial construction industry in Washington state I see all the signs that 25 years of experience tell me are the first signs of an approaching recession. On a personal level my overall tax rate is actually up, no pay raises for four years, increases in my real estate holdings have been blunted by increasing property taxes. I am back to where I was before the Clinton presidency. I am not only worse off than two years ago I am actually worse off than I was eight years ago.
— Gerry Gilbert
Thank goodness for Bush and the tax cuts. Without them, the aftermath of the Clinton bubble burst would still be lingering with us. My only concern for the economy is that Kerry gets in and does away with the tax cuts, causing a huge slowdown in the economy. If that occurs, kiss your rear goodbye because there is nothing for the Fed to do to help stimulate the economy given where interest rates are today.
What new jobs? Where is the improvement? I tell our employees and our banker that better days are coming but fear that I am just wishing hopeful thoughts. Your article mentioned that the last time the Fed increased rates was in 2000, just after the market peak — what do YOU think killed the bull market of the ’90's? Yesterday I received our renewal from our health insurer and it was up 17 percent. Ouch (again). The last time I felt this negative about the economy was when I was standing in the unemployment line in 1980.
— Don Bown
No, we are not doing better. The Los Angeles Times has just laid off a number of people due to a slump in advertising revenue. Such a decline in revenue does not exactly bespeak a robust economy here in L.A. As a Realtor, I am acutely aware of the mood swings of the economy. Earlier this month, our listing board had few listings; now it has a couple of dozen of unsold properties, which is NOT a good sign. Our local real estate market has really slowed down, and when that happens, it ripples through the rest of the local economy. My wife is in fear of losing her job, and my prospects have suddenly grown a lot dimmer.
— Ron Hay