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Five Years Later: How Americans Are Feeling About the Economy

September 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Gerald Seib, Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, talks to Hari Sreenivasan about the recent WSJ/NBC News survey showing many Americans continue to worry about making ends meet in the US economy. Among the findings: 26% -- one in four -- said they most worry about paying for their groceries and utility bills.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: And now the economy with some surprising findings from a poll released this week from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, for more from that, we are joined by Gerald Seib, the Journal’s Washington Bureau Chief.

We were particularly struck to the responses to one of your questions, what worries people

The most? Access to affordable health care and saving for retirement tops the list of concerns. But 26% — one in four — said they most worry about paying for their groceries and utility bills. What does that tell us about the economy?

GERALD SEIB: Well, it tells you what the rest of the finding also tells you which is five years after the economic collapse on Sall Street, people are not very comfortable with this recovery.

You know, people worry about health care and that suggests Obamacare is addressing the right question, even if you don’t think it’s the right answer.

You are right, it is striking how many people worry about things day-to-day right now.

The other number that jumped out at me is that last fall, 45% of people said they thought the economy was going to get better over the next 12 months. That number is now down to 27%.

So, you know, people have been looking for five years for the sign that the real recovery that’s going to produce the real economic growth may be a little bit of an economic boom is coming.

They still don’t see its there and so they’re worried not just about the long run, they’re worried about the short run.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The other number I was interested in is the number of people in your survey who identify themselves as poor has actually doubled in the last 15 years and the percentage calling themselves middle class has slipped. How unusual is this?

GERALD SEIB: That is unusual. And that itself is the American Dream. The dream has always been that the people who are poor can strive to be middle class. And people in the middle class can strive to be rich. You’re sort of seeing a reversal of that.

The other number in that regard that jumped out to me at least was that those people who consider themselves middle class, 19% said they fear at least they might drop out of the middle

class in the next five years or so. That’s a real sign of worry as well. You cited the “can i pay my grocery bills, my utility bills?” number earlier, but this is a number suggesting long term concerns, not just short term.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, there is only 24 percent of respondents said they had been affected a great deal by the crisis on Wall Street and the housing crisis, so what else accounts for this growing number of people who feel poor or think they have fallen out of the middle class?

GERALD SEIB: Two things, if you divide that number with the people who said they were somewhat affected — by the Wall Street collapse, the Wall Street crisis, you get over 50%. So people didn’t just observe this crisis. A lot of people felt that it affected them or at least somebody in their family somewhere. So that’s the first thing. Second thing is I think it’s produced a general anxiety. You see the in a lot of poll numbers.

Frankly, I think you see it on the debate on Syria. This is an uneasy country. Even if you didn’t feel you were directly affected by the Wall Street financial crisis, you sort of watched it up close, close enough that you worry about it and it’s produced kind of an underlying anxiety and there hasn’t been enough economic growth to make that anxiety go away. So, that i think is the real residual effect five years later.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Gerry, thanks, so much.

GERALD SEIB: Sure, happy to do it.