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Thriving Economy Lifts Spirits Survey Shows Most Americans Are Less Frightened About Future

Sun., May 25, 1997, midnight

The economy’s phenomenal performance is finally getting through to Americans. A survey says they’ve turned an optimistic corner and are less concerned about losing their jobs, putting their kids through college or having enough to retire on.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, suggests that people seem less frightened about the future than they were just a few years ago - when the air was full of talk of corporate downsizing and government cuts in Medicare and health care in general.

For once, the public seems to be in lockstep with professional economists. James F. Smith of the University of North Carolina, who publishes an economic newsletter, said he cannot find an economist who thinks the United States may suffer a recession before this year is over, which was not an uncommon prediction at the start of the year. Even those who had predicted a downturn in 1998 “are scattering in a hurry,” he said.

Government statistics also support the optimism. Unemployment has hit a 23-year low and the economy grew this winter at the most energetic rate in 10 years. The deficit is shrinking and Congress is on the verge of making a balanced budget deal with President Clinton. And private measurements of consumer confidence show a 30-year high.

Sixty-eight percent in the poll said they expect to be better off next year than now. Only 12 percent said they would be worse off.

Still the optimism wasn’t universal: While 50 percent of those asked said their personal financial situation was good, 49 percent put it at poor.

Four years ago, those who gave their situations a negative cast outnumbered the optimists 62 percent to 37 percent.

The poll was taken a week ago, with 1,228 adults questioned by telephone. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The survey said that those who are very concerned about having enough to retire on has declined by almost 50 percent since early spring last year.

Thirty percent said they worried a lot about suffering a pay cut or losing their job. That’s down from 47 percent in March 1996. But nine years ago, only 18 percent had those fears.

Forty-four percent feel greatly concerned about their children’s job opportunities - down from 67 percent in March 1996.

“Until recently, the public has been unable to shake off the effects of the last recession,” the pollsters said. “Slowly, if not almost grudgingly, Americans acknowledged that their personal financial picture had improved.”

Those under age 30 and those with college degrees were the most optimistic about their financial futures.

Smith said that college graduates “are a hot commodity.” He told of one student, halfway through earning a master’s degree in business, who will be paid $27,000 for a summer job lasting three months. Other graduate business students are being flown to Europe for job interviews with European corporations, he said.

The Pew survey results are “consistent with what I see, what I hear, what I read and with most people I talk to,” Smith added. “These are wonderful times for practicing optimists. It is very unusual to have things this good in the economy with no evidence of excesses.”

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