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Mood of the Nation: Some optimism amid struggles

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:

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

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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

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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

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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."

He isn't looking for the government to help restore his financial security. He says he'll keep working hard and hope for the best.

It's an impulse rooted in American culture, he says.

"What made our country great," Arvin says, "was people sucking it up, working hard and being energized to go in a direction because they could believe in their dreams and know their dreams were possible because they believed in themselves."

One way he thinks he may realize that dream is with an invention he hopes catches fire: A makeup case Arvin decided to design after noticing how powder from his wife's compact case would spill.

His wife is trying to turn the cases into a business. He says she's sold hundreds of them at trade shows and on eBay. And Arvin is seeking a patent for his design.

"Maybe this will take off," he says. "Who knows? But you just have to keep trying and not give up. That's the American way."

- Associated Press Writer Mitch Weiss

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - The low point for Brookside Flooring came two or three years ago.

The housing bubble had wrecked South Florida's home market. Construction barely existed. Companies were closing or shedding staff.

Jay Baker's company managed to survive. But it suffered.

Now? Business has rebounded in the past few months. Sales are still down by about a third since 2008.

But when you've withstood a savage housing bust, any sustained improvement feels gratifying.

"Slowly but surely, it's coming back," Baker says. "I really can't pinpoint it. All I know is that it's getting better, and it makes me happy."

Baker sees the overall economy strengthening, too - and for that, he credits President Barack Obama for pushing his economic agenda against sharp Republican resistance.

U.S. unemployment has dipped, Baker notes. Stock prices have surged more than 13 percent this year. Consumers are more confident and spending a bit more.

When more people are working, Baker says, everyone who depends on a robust economy gains.

People aren't just more apt to replace the flooring in their home or business, he says. Restaurants and clothing stores benefit. So do auto dealers, contractors and furniture shops.

"In a small town, when a large business goes out of business, the people are out of a job, but all of the small businesses are affected, too," he says. "When business is better, everybody's affected."

Which helps explain why, despite his setbacks, Baker remains an optimist.

But also a realist. To blunt the pain of higher gasoline prices, for example, he's invested in a Toyota Prius for the long run. His home's value has tumbled. And while it's still worth more than he paid for it about 13 years ago, Baker hardly expects its value to soar in coming years.

He's confident his business will thrive - if the construction industry can sustain its gradual recovery and if employers eventually start hiring as freely as they did before the Great Recession struck nearly five years ago.

"My wish for America is to get out of any recession or depression and go positive," Baker says. "Let people have jobs again."

- Associated Press Writer Matt Sedensky

To watch video of these people, and for more on this topic, go to: http://bigstory.ap.org/topic/mood-of-the-nation



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