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Poll finds high anxiety on economy this month


WASHINGTON — With little relief in sight, people are getting more anxious about the slumping economy and how it affects them.

The share of people who believe the country is moving in the right direction has plunged in just a few weeks, from 28 percent in September to 15 percent in October, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo News poll of likely voters released Monday.

At the same time, there is a drop in the share of those surveyed who say they are happy about the way things are going in their own lives. Now 59 percent say they are personally happy, compared with 70 percent last month.

The magnitude of the financial meltdown and its impact on the overall economy is hitting people hard across the social and economic spectrum.

Strikingly, one-third are worried about losing their jobs, half fret they will be unable to keep up with mortgage and credit card payments, and seven in 10 are anxious that their stocks and retirement investments are losing value, according to the poll.

Also, there is widespread distress about being able to afford unexpected medical expenses and children’s college expenses, and having to postpone retirement because their savings have eroded, the survey found.

“I’m just a normal person trying to get by in life,” said Mary Huss, 57, an unemployed social worker from Salinas, Calif., who is facing cash shortages and questions about how she will pay her medical costs and her teenagers’ college expenses. “And yet I feel fortunate that I’m not in the place where a lot of Americans are where they’re losing their homes.”

The AP-Yahoo News poll, conducted by Knowledge Networks, has repeatedly interviewed a group of about 2,000 people since last November in an effort to get a person-by-person view of how the country is reacting to the presidential campaign and the events affecting it.

The picture the survey paints of those who have grown less happy since September is telling. One-third are retirees.

James Haste, 78, of Arvada, Colo., is among those who have watched their retirement savings shrink.

In September, he said the nation was headed in the right direction. Now he is among the 84 percent who say it is hurtling off track. The retired engineer lists the financial crisis, the energy situation and rising unemployment as the top problems.

“Markets are going to come back, but not soon,” he said. Banks and other financial institutions “are going to have to write off a lot of bad stuff, and who’s going to take the hit? The banks can’t do it if they’re going to stay in business. It’s a slow process.”

A Republican, Haste said he sees government bailouts such as the $700 billion plan passed by Congress this month and the Treasury Department’s plans to buy shares in major banks as necessary evils. Overall, 54 percent said they approved of the rescue plan, 28 percent disapproved and the rest had no opinion.

The poll shows how financial worries have permeated all corners of society, with some hit harder than others:

• Though about one-third worry about financing a child’s college education, 60 percent of people under age 45 are anxious about it.

• Fifty-three percent worry they will have to work longer because their retirement savings have dwindled, and 66 percent of people in their 40s feel that way.

• One-third worry about losing their job, but nearly half in their 30s and 40s do.

• Forty-six percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks worry about making mortgage and credit card payments.

• Sixty-six percent overall are concerned about facing major medical bills, including 78 percent of unmarried women.

Public approval of both President Bush and Congress has followed the downward spiral of financial markets, the survey showed.

The poll found that 25 percent said they approved of the way Bush was handling his presidency, down from 32 percent in August. Remarkably, just 3 percent said they strongly approve of the job Bush is doing, compared with 51 percent strongly disapproving.

Just 11 percent said they approved of the job Congress is doing, while virtually no one gave lawmakers strong approval.

Anderson Lee, 21, a caregiver from Bowling Green, Ohio, is among those saying the country is heading the right way.

“Certainly there are some problems we’re facing now with the economy and overseas issues,” Lee said. “But we’ve faced larger problems in the past. That spirit of working together and working to make the country better will drive us through the problems we’re facing.”

Donna Gasior, 43, a professor at a Detroit-area community college, said the stock market tumble is having a “huge effect because pretty much everyone’s retirement funds are in the stock market.” She said she believes she has time to recoup but her 69-year-old mother “gets a majority of her income just from investments.”

A Democrat, Gasior said that “mismanagement and policies have really come home to roost with the economic collapse we’re seeing. I think things have been on the wrong track for a long time.”

The AP-Yahoo News poll included 841 likely voters, was conducted from Oct. 3-13, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. Included were interviews with 373 Democrats, 252 Republicans and 214 independents.

The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.

AP Director of Surveys Trevor Tompson, News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and writers Christine Simmons and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

(Associated Press)