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Poll finds deepening economic pessimism

Faith in the future is very weak among Mass. residents as they remain wary about stocks and home values

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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Despite improvements in the economy, Massachusetts residents hold deeply pessimistic views about the future, including a stark lack of confidence in real estate and stock markets, two traditional paths to financial security, according to a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll.

The survey found more than a continued bleak outlook; it found a disheartened population that says it is saving less, giving less to charity, and planning to work longer, generally for one reason: lack of money.

The real estate and stock markets offer little hope, they said. Nearly two out of three surveyed say they are unsure about stocks or currently consider them a bad investment. More than half think housing prices will remain stagnant or continue to drop in the year ahead.

“Things have been really bad but it’s reached another level now - people have lost hope,’’ said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk’s Political Research Center, which conducted the poll. “The American dream of owning a home and owning stocks are the pillars that have held up hope throughout our history. This is signaling to us that those pillars are shaking.’’

The poll of 400 Massachusetts residents was conducted early last week, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Remarkably, optimism was easier to find in the same poll taken two years ago, when the nation was still reeling from the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression. Most believed then that the recession would end in late 2009.

Two years later, three-fourths of those surveyed said the recession in Massachusetts has yet to end and half said they expected it to last at least two more years.

The recession technically ended in June 2009, and since then, unemployment has ticked downward both nationally and in Massachusetts. (The state’s unemployment rate was 7.1 percent in October and the US rate fell to 8.6 percent for November.) In the last year, hiring, manufacturing and consumer confidence have all shown modest improvements.

Yet among those polled, gloom prevails, a sign that many have not shared in these gains or don’t believe they will last. One in five respondents said someone in their household had lost a job within the last 18 months, and of those who did, 36 percent said the person had been unemployed for a year or more.

Jeffrey Bolger, a Halifax resident, said too many manufacturing companies have moved their operations outside the United States, eliminating good jobs, leaving a new generation of workers in positions that pay less or offer few benefits. He said his adult son, for example, has a college degree and a job, but remains on Bolger’s health insurance plan.

Bolger, 61, said he is grateful to have a pension - he has been a state employee for nearly 40 years - but that he realizes the pension’s value and his retirement are also linked to corporations’ ability to maximize their profits.

“I want a good return on my retirement investments. On the other hand, the loss of jobs is killing the country,’’ he said. “I don’t know what the answer is - I’m just glad we’re not raising kids.’’

Even a potential bright spot in the survey - more than 80 percent of respondents say they’ve been spending the same or more on goods and services over the last six months - did not necessarily signal an improving consumer outlook, Paleologos said. The increase in spending probably reflected the rising cost of gas, food, and health care in the last year, he said.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, a forecasting firm in West Chester, Pa., said consumers are buying because they have to, not because they want to. “You can only rein in [spending on necessities] for so long,’’ Zandi said.

There’s plenty to be depressed about, Zandi added. Housing values have fallen by one-third in the last six years, stocks are flat, and political leaders appear incapable of resolving national budget woes.

“People have been put through the wringer,’’ Zandi said. “They’re very tired and they’re psychologically scarred.’’

Commercial real estate agent Toni Shelzi of Belmont said the number of jobless Americans and congressional proposals to cut federal spending have made her increasingly worried about the direction of the nation.

She said she supports tax increases on the wealthy to lessen spending cuts “even if it means I have to pay more or someone I know has to pay more.’’

“You hear about all the strife - I wish there was more I could do,’’ she said.

Cutting the national deficit ranked at the top of poll participants’ concerns; 80 percent said it was either “very’’ or “somewhat’’ important to helping the economic recovery.

More than one-third said deficit reduction should be achieved primarily through spending cuts, compared with just 13 percent who thought the budget should be balanced primarily by raising taxes. Another one-third thought the deficit should be reduced “equally with spending cuts and raising taxes.’’

Claudia Heller, a retired fourth-grade teacher who lives in Wayland, said she has grown increasingly disgusted with government leaders who won’t compromise to solve the nation’s problems. Many politicians have allowed the standard of living for the middle class to erode, she said, while protecting the interests of the wealthy.

She cited the recent financial crisis as an example, blaming banks and ineffective policy-makers and regulators for offering mortgages to customers who couldn’t afford them.

“I think it’s going to take a long time to turn this economy around,’’ Heller said.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

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