By Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen
The deepening recession has eroded the financial standing and optimism of a broad swath of Americans, nearly two-thirds of whom say that they have been hurt by the downturn and that the country has slipped into long-term economic decline.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll also found that a rapidly increasing share of Americans -- 66 percent, up from just over half a year ago -- are worried about maintaining their standard of living. Nearly two in 10 said they or someone living in their household had lost a job in the past few months, and more than a quarter said they had their pay or hours reduced. And 15 percent said that at some point in the past year they fell behind on their rent or mortgage.
The poll captures the widening fallout from the faltering economy that policymakers are struggling to contain. The Federal Reserve yesterday cut its target for the federal funds rate to a range of zero to 0.25 percent, the lowest on record.
"They're getting to be about as low as they can go," President-elect Barack Obama said at a news conference yesterday before meeting with members of his economic team. "And although the Fed is still going to have more tools available to it, it is critical that the other branches of government step up. And that's why the economic recovery plan is so absolutely critical."
Obama has pledged to enact a massive economic stimulus plan initiating publicly funded construction on a scale not seen since work on the interstate highway system began half a century ago. In all, economists have estimated that the plan could cost more than $700 billion over two years, increasing a federal budget deficit that is approaching $1 trillion.
The poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans support new federal spending to stimulate the economy, and majorities of both Democrats and Republicans back the idea. Concern about deficit spending, however, mutes enthusiasm for the stimulus plan. When respondents were asked whether they would back the plan if it increased the deficit, support dropped to 47 percent. Overall, nearly nine in 10 said they are worried about the size of the federal budget deficit, including nearly half who are "very concerned."
Most, 55 percent, said Obama is off to a good start in dealing with the economy, which the vast majority of Americans call the No. 1 issue confronting the country. Ten percent said Obama is on the wrong track in terms of his economic vision. Nearly half expect Obama will be able to improve the economy "a great deal" or a "good amount."
But the overall federal response to the economic situation gets low marks: Twenty-four percent approve of the way President Bush is handling the economy, and a similarly paltry 23 percent approve of the broader federal response to the crisis.
Democrats, Republicans and independents alike are highly critical of the federal action to address the crisis -- among each group, more than seven in 10 disapprove. In part, the criticisms stem from skepticism that the government has put in place adequate controls to avoid waste and fraud in the use of federal money in the economic recovery effort. Only 30 percent are confident that proper regulations were enacted.
Overall, 82 percent said the country is headed pretty seriously off on the wrong track, and 54 percent call the nation's financial predicament a "crisis."
The number of those who said they have been hurt financially by the recession, 63 percent, is higher than the 53 percent who said they felt the pain of the 1991 recession. The stock market has added to the financial anxiety: More than half said their families have suffered because of the recent sharp drop on Wall Street, and nearly half lack confidence that they will have sufficient assets to last through retirement.
More than half worry about being able to afford medical care for a sick family member, and nearly four in 10 are concerned about making house payments and heating their homes this winter.
The unease is most palpable among those with annual family incomes less than $50,000. They are twice as likely as those with higher incomes to be "very concerned" about maintaining their lifestyles and are much more apt to be anxious about health care and housing. Across the board, women are more apt than men to express concern in these areas.
The poll found that 10 percent of homeowners and 29 percent of renters said they have fallen behind on their mortgage and rent payments at some point in the past year.
More than two in 10 of those with jobs said they think it is likely they will lose their position over the next year, higher than at any point in polls dating to 1975.
The widespread financial anxiety will be felt across the holidays: Fifty-seven percent said they will spend less on Christmas shopping for family and friends this year than last. That is the most saying they plan to rein in shopping in polls going back to 1985.
The poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 11-14 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults interviewed on conventional residential telephones or cellphones. Results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins for subgroups are larger.
By Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen
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