Americans think economy is improving — just not for them

Americans think economy is improving — just not for them
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More Americans say the economy is improving, but even those who see more prosperous times around them feel that their families are being left behind.

The contrast is likely to present a challenge to politicians at all levels running for office next year. Those seeking reelection must find a way to claim credit for the improving economy while simultaneously empathizing with those struggling to keep up. 

A new survey from the Pew Research Center found 50 percent of Americans said there were plenty of jobs available in their local communities, while 42 percent said jobs are difficult to find.

It is the first time since Pew pollsters began asking about job openings, back in 2001, that more people have said there are plenty of jobs available than those who have said work is hard to come by.

But many still think they are falling behind. Forty-nine percent of Americans told Pew their family's income level is not keeping pace with the cost of living, while 40 percent said they are staying about even.  

Just 9 percent of Americans say they feel like they are getting ahead.

Younger Americans are most likely to say their incomes are rising faster than the cost of living, while older Americans are most likely to say they are falling behind. Just 37 percent of Republicans say they are falling behind, compared with 56 percent of those who identified as Democrats. 

There were few differences along racial lines, though African-Americans were slightly more likely to say they are falling behind (54 percent) than were white voters (47 percent). 

Other pollsters say they have seen the same disconnect between macro- and microeconomic views.

"Voters believe things are getting better, but they say we are a long way from being in good economic shape," said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies. "That is a scary conundrum for politicians in swing seats — voters know things are getting better, but many of them are not personally feeling it." 

"Voters are kind of willing to structurally say the economy is getting better in certain ways as their own personal situations are not," said Nick Gourevitch, a partner at the Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group. "The micro is still very negative out there." 

Overall views of the economy are improving, though so far only Republican voters are willing to credit President Trump's policies. 

Forty-one percent of Americans say the economy is in excellent or good shape. That figure is 10 points higher than it was in the weeks after Trump won election last year, and four times higher than it was during the early months of the recovery.  

Between 2009 and 2012, barely 10 percent of Americans saw an economy in excellent or good shape. 

Almost half of Americans, 49 percent, say Trump's policies have not had much impact on the economic outlook. About three in 10 — including almost two-thirds of Republican voters — say Trump's policies have made the economy better, while one in six voters say Trump has made the economy worse. 

Improving views of the national economy, and stagnant views of their own personal economics, may be one reason so many recent elections — including the 2016 presidential campaign and the 2017 race for governor in Virginia, which Democrats won Tuesday night — have seemingly become referendums on cultural issues as much as debates over the future of the economy. 

Much of President Trump's appeal to voters in 2016 hinged on bringing back once-dominant industries, like manufacturing and coal mining, that have waned in recent decades. His warnings about immigrants flooding over the border and a growing crime wave were more cultural than economic, though he did warn of immigrants taking jobs from Americans. 

"There is this tension right now between fiscal messaging and social and cultural messaging," Gourevitch said. "In 2016, it felt like the cultural piece trumped, for lack of a better word, the fiscal worries." 

As American politics have become increasingly polarized, so too have the views of the economy. When President Obama held office, Democrats were far more likely to have a positive economic outlook. After Trump took over, the Republican mood brightened substantially.

In late 2016, near the end of Obama's term, 46 percent of Democrats said the economy was in excellent or good condition, compared with just 14 percent of Republicans. Today, 57 percent of Republicans say the economy is in excellent or good shape, while the Democratic number has dropped to 30 percent.

A majority of Republicans, 63 percent, say they believe economic conditions will be better a year from now. A plurality of Democrats, 44 percent, say economic conditions will be worse. 

The Pew Research Center survey polled 1,504 adults between Oct. 25-30 for an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.