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Mass. economy on the mend, but voters worry about their wallets

Jul. 11, 2014 | News Article

The Boston Globe
By David Scharfenberg

The Massachusetts economy is back. Unemployment is down. Pay is growing at a healthy clip. Sales are up.

But a new Boston Globe poll suggests Bay State voters aren’t sold on the recovery.

Eight in 10 say their personal financial situation is about the same or worse than it was a year ago, with low-income poll respondents more likely to report a slide.

And voters are not terribly optimistic about how their children will fare in a changing economy.

“There is this kind of simmering uneasiness about the economy, despite the fact that Massachusetts is recovering faster than the region and the nation as a whole,” said John Della Volpe, chief executive of SocialSphere Inc., which conducted the poll for the Globe.

National surveys show the anxious streak juts out of New England, down the East Coast and all over the country. And economists such as Robert Nakosteen, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, say the psychological blow of the Great Recession is partly to blame.

“My God, I’m in my 60s and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Nakosteen said. “This has been a scarring experience. And the comeback from this experience has been really moderate at best. It’s been bumpy. It never felt robust and vibrant. That’s what’s in the ether.”

Poll respondent Kevin Brockmyre, 50, of Amesbury, is among those still feeling the impact of the recession. The 25-year veteran of the lumber and building materials industry was laid off from his sales job in May.

“Our industry, which is pretty core to the economy, took a pretty serious dip there a few years back and hasn’t recovered very much since then,” he said.

Brockmyre, who is married with three adult daughters, says he was cutting back even before the layoff.

The family, which likes to spend time with relatives in the Finger Lakes section of Brockmyre’s native New York, hasn’t been on a full vacation in three years. And the salesman put off replacing his sport utility vehicle, which he had driven more than 300,000 miles, as long as he could.

Now, Brockmyre worries about paying off his new SUV, saving for retirement, and affording groceries — even with two of his three children out of the house. “Even as our household declines, the grocery bill seems to get bigger,” he said.

The concern is widespread, the poll shows.

More than half of voters say the rising cost of basic household items, such as groceries and gas, has created financial stress. And almost 40 percent say they are dining out less often than they did a year ago versus just 5 percent who say they are going to restaurants more often.

Forty-four percent say they do not have enough savings for an unexpected job loss or financial blow. And the worry is particularly pronounced among younger respondents, who have come of age in a struggling economy and are often working in entry-level jobs.

“I’m actually severely underprepared for” losing a job, said poll respondent Alex Sender, 20, of Cambridge, who works as a part-time security guard and lives at home with his mother. “I need to accrue a little bit and save some — at least, like, maybe $1,000 or $1,500, in case something hits the fan.”

If millennials are concerned about the present, the survey suggests they are relatively optimistic about the future. But they are the exception.

Just 32 percent of poll respondents think their children will be better off than they are, while 34 percent think their children will be worse off, and 22 percent say they will be about the same. Twelve percent say they do not know.

Still, there is some optimism in places.

A plurality of voters think they are better off than their parents were at the same age. Strong majorities say they are confident they have solid plans for paying their children’s college tuition and saving for retirement.

And 65 percent agree with the statement, “The cost of living in Massachusetts is expensive, but it’s worth it.” Just 30 percent say it’s not.

Poll respondent Gary Crippa, 65, a retired police sergeant in Pittsfield, is among those who feel it’s worth it.

“I don’t have to live here, I can live wherever I damn well please,” he said. “I’m here by choice. It’s home. This is where I was born.”

Crippa and his wife, who works at the district attorney’s office, just finished paying off a vacation home in Maine and can rely on government pensions as they age. When his wife plays golf on Mondays and Thursdays, Crippa goes out to eat. “I know where they’ve got real good wings,” he said.

Cim’s Tavern in Pittsfield is a favorite.

But Crippa, who lives just miles from the New York border, is in the minority in his part of the state. The Globe poll finds considerably more optimism at the hub of the state’s innovation economy: in Boston and in the wealthy suburbs surrounding it.

William H. Guenther is chief executive of consulting firm Mass Insight Global Partnerships, which tracks consumer confidence in the state. He’s found a similar regional divide.

“I think it depends on where you sit,” he said. “There’s a good share of the population that’s doing well, and there’s other parts of the population, particularly in the outer regions in the state, where the economic picture doesn’t look the same as it does in Greater Boston.”

The geographic split is not the only one evident in the Globe poll. Economic anxiety is more pronounced on the lower end of the income scale. And those with the least education are the most pessimistic. The survey also finds Republicans and independents are more worried about the economy than Democrats.

Della Volpe, the pollster, said the broad unease could play a significant role in the governor’s race. ‘This is something that is a big, big part of Massachusetts politics, Massachusetts civic life,” he said.

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