Kurt Hellijas wouldn’t say that his life is much better than it was four years ago.
But he wouldn’t say that it’s worse, either.
“It’s about average,” said Hellijas, who opened his Schenectady shop The Re-Collector, where he sells vinyl records, CDs, jewelry and other items, about three years ago. “I wish I was making a million dollars, but I’m not losing anything, and that’s a good sign. Sometimes I get aggravated, but it is what it is. I’m holding my own right now. I pay my rent and my National Grid and I have a little left over.”
A popular election-season poll question asks U.S. residents whether they are better off than they were four years ago; if a majority says no, it could spell trouble for the incumbent president. The question was perhaps most famously used by Ronald Reagan a week before he unseated incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, when inflation and unemployment were high and the country was reeling from the Iran hostage crisis.
Now, in an August USA Today/Gallup poll, more than half of the participants said they and their families were not better off than they were four years ago, while about 48 percent said that their standard of living was improving. This result was actually an improvement from Obama’s first full month in office, when only 35 percent of respondents reported improvement in their daily lives. But in January, April and May of this year, 52 percent of those surveyed said that their lives were getting better.
Donald Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute, which conducts surveys on a range of topics, said “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is a “classic polling question.”
In June, the institute asked New York voters how their families are doing compared to four years ago.
Forty-four percent said about the same, while 32 percent said they were doing worse and 23 percent said they were doing better. Voters were also asked whether they felt that the country was worse off than it was four years ago. Forty-four percent said yes, while 30 percent said that it was better and 25 percent said they thought it was about the same. But voters also expressed optimism, with 52 percent saying that the country will be better off in four years than it is today, and only 15 percent saying that it will be worse.
Levy noted that consumer confidence, which measures how people feel about the economy and their personal finances, has improved since Obama took office, and is about 11 points higher among New Yorkers than it was four years ago. The state’s consumer confidence is still relatively low, he said, but “four years ago it was abysmal.”
Levy said people want their lives to improve rather than stay the same — they want to feel that they are earning more money, that their investments are doing well and that they are making progress. “Voters may not feel that they are worse off, but they’re not as well off as they’d like to be,” he said. What this adds up to is “collective frustration and disenchantment.” He noted that in one poll, 20 percent of respondents reported that a member of their household had lost a job or seen their hours at work cut back.
“That’s the sort of thing that makes it very, very difficult for people to say they are doing better,” Levy said.
The Siena poll revealed partisan differences, with a majority of Republicans and nearly half of independents saying that the country is worse off, and 43 percent of Democrats saying that the country is better off.
Zoe Oxley, chair of the political science department at Union College, said the “are you better off?” question can be a good barometer of how voters feel in an election year, particularly if an incumbent is up for re-election and voters are assessing his performance. “It’s a good measure of people’s attitudes,” she said. When voters head to the polls, they often have two issues on their mind: peace and prosperity, she said.
Oxley said the political parties frame the “are you better off?” question differently.
The Romney/Ryan ticket is asking voters whether they feel better off in their everyday lives, and is betting that the answer will often be no; the Obama/Biden ticket is asking voters to focus on national economic indicators, which have improved during the past four years. She said that the stark difference in the poll can be explained by the fact that the country is more partisan today than it was in, say, 1980. “People are less likely to switch out of political parties,” she said.
When asked by the Sunday Gazette whether their lives were getting better, local residents gave answers that often reflected their anxiety over the country’s slow recovery and reports of unrest in the Middle East and the assassination last week of a U.S. diplomat in Libya.
“I turn the TV on, and there’s fighting at the embassies,” said a 74-year-old Rotterdam woman. “It’s only a matter of time before something like that happens here.” She said the high price of gas and groceries was also a concern. “I’m worse off,” she said. “My daughter was laid off. She has a college degree. My retirement doesn’t go like it used to. I sit down with the paper every Sunday and look for coupons.”
One man, a 54-year-old Colonie resident who works in health care, said he was disappointed with the economy. “My finances have stayed the same,” he said. “A number of my friends and some of my family have lost jobs. I know people who are overqualified who can’t find jobs.”
Forty-three-year-old Schenectady resident Jill Alois said her finances have not improved in the past four years, but life in general has. Four years ago, she was selling advertisements for a West Coast newspaper, a job she hated. Two years ago, she returned to Schenectady and now works in her mother’s antique shop, Vintage Art.
“I changed my whole career,” Alois said. “Newspapers are a dying business. I might not be making as much money as I was, but I’m happier.”
Schenectady resident Lewis Parker, 39, got out of prison in 2010 after serving 16 years for selling drugs. Now he is taking classes at Schenectady County Community College with the goal of becoming a substance abuse counselor.
He said his life has gotten better, and when asked what the biggest improvement was, he said, “Freedom.”
Seventy-five-year-old Catherine May, a Lenox, Mass., resident who used to live in Niskayuna and was visiting the area, said her life is OK, but “so much of the world is not. I worry about my children and grandchildren. I know people who have been gravely impacted by the economy.”
Hellijas, the owner of The Re-Collector, said he is positive about the future, and thinks downtown Schenectady will continue to improve. His main concern, he said, is how America interacts with and is perceived by the rest of the world.
“America needs to be a little bit less nice,” he said. “The rest of the world doesn’t really respect us, and we need to get that respect back. We’ve got people here who are starving. Why should we care more about feeding people halfway around the world?”
According to the USA Today/Gallup poll, satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States has varied significantly during Obama’s presidency. In August, 25 percent of respondents reported that they were satisfied with the direction of the country, up from 15 percent in February 2009.
Satisfaction rose to a high of 36 percent in the months after Obama took office, before falling to the 19 percent to 26 percent range for most of 2010 and early 2011. In the summer of 2011, satisfaction fell to 11 percent.