On the eve of the 2012 elections, The Associated Press interviewed dozens of Americans to try to gauge the economic mood of the nation. People were asked about jobs, housing, gas prices, retirement and other issues.
Among them were:
— Adrienne Cragnotti, 46, and Mike Eiler, 41, of Chicago. She's a self-employed photographer; he's an unemployed former copy editor. Despite career setbacks and a declining living standard, Cragnotti and Eiler remain optimistic.
— Hilda Mitrani, 51, of North Miami Beach, Fla. The Great Recession and slow economic recovery have devastated her public relations and marketing business. But Mitrani says positive signs are emerging.
— Vicki Williams, 47, of Mechanicsville, Va., outside Richmond. Williams feels secure in her job as an occupational therapist for a school district. Her view of the economy has brightened. Yet she worries that the nation has drifted away from a political culture that once seemed more inclined to help the needy.
— Ray Arvin, 47, of Mineral Springs, N.C., outside Charlotte. Arvin has struggled financially since a business he owned that supplied the power and aviation industries collapsed in 2009. He worries about his future and about the direction of the federal government.
— Jay Baker, 69, of Boca Raton, Fla. He owns a flooring business whose revenue dropped after the housing bust. Recently, though, Baker has begun to enjoy a recovery.
— Amanda and Chris Folk, both 33, of Billings, Mont. The Folks have endured financial blows since the housing bubble burst. She's back in school. He's earning less money. They worry that their ability to regain financial security is blocked by corporations and their allies in Washington.
Their full stories are below. To watch video of these people, and for more on this topic, go to: http://bigstory.ap.org/topic/mood-of-the-nation
CHICAGO (AP) — Job market frustrations are the one gray cloud hanging over Adrienne Cragnotti and Mike Eiler's adventuresome life together.
The couple dealt with Eiler's layoff from a Colorado Springs newspaper last December by indulging in diversions they lacked time for when they were working.
They fixed up and sold their century-old house in Colorado, went camping around the West in a vintage travel trailer and visited friends.
Then in July, they moved to Chicago, a city they'd always wanted to live in. Ditching most belongings, they rented a 350-square-foot studio apartment in the city's upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood and moved in with their two cats.
But the tightening squeeze of long-term unemployment threatens their future, as it does for many other Americans. More than 5 million people have been out of work for six months or more, up from 2.7 million when President Barack Obama took office.
Eiler, who worked as a copy editor, has been job-hunting unsuccessfully for nearly a year. He has found few suitable job openings in journalism or related fields — and heavier competition than he expected.
Cragnotti brings home only limited pay from her photography and modest rental income from a house she owns in Los Angeles. Demand for the glamour photography she specializes in has dropped. So she is branching out to different kinds of photography in search of more income.
After Eiler's unemployment checks stop coming in December, they'll need to dip into savings to get by.
That could prompt more cutbacks to their lifestyle. Eiler remains optimistic. But he figures their standard of living "will have to be worse for a little while before it gets better."
"As bad as it might seem, the self-pity of not having a job, we're hardly eating out of a Dumpster," he says. "We're pretty fortunate." But, he adds: "It's more difficult than I thought it would be to find a new job.
The unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent in September, the first time it has dipped below 8 percent in 43 months, but ticked up to 7.9 percent in October.
Cragnotti's glad the U.S. economy and job outlook seem to be slowly picking up. But she's eager to see it translate to more than just numbers in the news.
"Our personal economy is not that great," she says.
— Associated Press Writer Dave Carpenter
MIAMI (AP) — Hilda Mitrani's long-time clients are spending cautiously, if at all — and she has had to adjust her own lifestyle as a result.
She delays making home repairs. She keeps an eye on the thermostat. And only occasionally, she's able to treat herself to a new pair of shoes.
"It's been a hard recovery," says the single mother of two children.
Mitrani is among many feeling squeezed by a painfully sluggish economic rebound. Unemployment remains high at 7.8 percent. Average pay trails inflation. And the economy is growing too slowly to accelerate hiring.
Mitrani's clients in the nonprofit and health care sectors are reluctant to spend on public relations when they may need that money for supplies or other basics, she says. So Mitrani, who used to employ two part-time workers, now runs the business alone.
But even with lower overhead, she still feels squeezed.
"You're not sure if you're going to get paid this month or next month, or if you're going to have a new client to replace the project that you just finished," she says.
Routine utility bills feel like a burden. And thinking about college tuition payments — her daughter is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis — is "nerve-wracking."
More than anything else, though, she laments the endless string of payments for insurance. "Between the car, the house, the health — so much of the income goes to insurance that it's hard to get ahead," she says.
She rations healthcare for herself to cut down on co-pays. And when her daughter needed medical attention earlier this year, she found herself saying dueling prayers in the hospital.
"Please don't let this cost an arm and a leg. And please let her be OK," Mitrani recalls saying.
Mitrani is resigned to the fact that her retirement won't be as comfortable as her parents'. Compared with her parents' generation, Mitrani believes Americans today are a bit more materialistic and might need to ratchet back expectations a bit. There's evidence this is happening: Consumers have been saving and reducing debts more, and spending less, than before the financial crisis.
Still, Mitrani sees some reason for optimism. The stock market is coming back: The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index is up more than 12 percent this year. And slowly, clients are beginning to inquire about using her services in 2013.
"They're asking for proposals and planning expansions," she says. "They're starting to talk about the future."
— Associated Press Writer Matt Sedensky
RICHMOND (AP) — Vicki Williams says she can see the economy getting better, little by little.
She knows more people who have found jobs in recent months, particularly those with skills and advanced degrees in business or health care. And she sees more friends confident enough in the economy to invest in long-delayed home improvement work.
"People aren't as fearful about any minute they will lose their job," Williams says.
At the same time, she's disheartened by what she sees as a more polarized nation. It typically happens when Williams, who backs President Barack Obama, talks politics with neighbors who support Mitt Romney.
"When we have conversations about helping others out, the attitude is, 'Anybody that's received any kind of assistance from the government in any way is just a taker.' Whereas from my experience, I've seen families I work with have to use government assistance for specific things... and then are able to then get themselves back on their feet and maybe help someone else."
Average pay in the United States isn't keeping up with inflation, and some people Williams knows are barely getting by on their paychecks. They're one medical crisis away from a financial catastrophe. As a health care professional, she also knows people who rely on Medicaid and other public aid and would be vulnerable to federal cuts.
She says she's fortunate not to have needed government help herself. Williams remained employed throughout the recession even as many states and localities cut jobs.
"People will always need therapy," she says. "My field is in demand."
Together with her husband, an Army reservist and military contractor, Williams has maintained a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle. They have two children: One is in college; the other is working on an internship and attending college classes.
She's kept up contributions to her 401(k) and doesn't fret about retirement. The couple owns a home that's held its value. This year, they had hardwood floors installed in the kitchen and bathroom.
"The houses in our neighborhood are selling," she says. "If we wanted to get out, we would make a nice profit."
In her view, the president doesn't deserve all the blame for the still-weak economy or high unemployment, now at 7.9 percent. She wishes Republicans and Democrats would work more cooperatively to strengthen the economy.
"My dream for America," Williams says, "is that we'll go back to our core values of taking care of other people and looking out for other people instead of just looking out for ourselves."
— Associated Press Writer Michael Sandler
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When Ray Arvin isn't worrying about his own financial plight, he's fretting about the government's. He's troubled by gaping budget deficits and galled by what he calls lax leadership in Washington.
What America needs, Arvin says, is to restore a spirit of individual self-reliance. And force the government to become leaner and more responsible.
"I'm against that government-down approach — spending without a thought of how we are going to balance the checkbook," Arvin says.
He tries to live by his own words.
When his company went bust three years ago, Arvin fell into unemployment for several months. He had blown through his savings — more than $100,000 — trying to save his business.
He now works in sales for a company that sells supplies to power companies. His income has shrunk.
Arvin's 2005 Chevy Suburban has 235,000 miles on it. When gas prices rise, his take-home pay drops. When the car breaks down, he fixes it himself to save money.
"I've lost my retirement that I had built up," he says. "I'm having to start from scratch right now, looking at an economy and a government that is going to make my great-grandchildren pay the price for what they're doing."
Political leaders in Washington leave him shaking his head. It isn't just President Barack Obama. Arvin opposes Obama. But he's also appalled by the actions of long-serving politicians.
"We have too many people in government who have made it their career to be in government," he says. "And they don't seem to be in it for the country. They seem to be in it for themselves or their party." Continued...