ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
One way of measuring the economy is to count: jobs, retail sales, construction spending. Another is harder to pin down: confidence; how do people feel about the economy? We've been reporting on places and industries where things are looking up. And for the past two months, polls have found people looking up, growing more confident.
NPR's Aarti Shahani reports on where that optimism is coming from and what impact it could have on the economy.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Falling home values, rising meat prices, shaky Greek debt deals, none of these factors carry the weight of one number.
CARROLL DOHERTY: People pay close attention to the jobless rate. That's a number that matters to people, especially the trajectory.
SHAHANI: That's Carroll Doherty, an associate director at the Pew Research Center. The trajectory in his last quarterly poll surprise him - it took a sharp turn up. Forty-four percent of Americans polled said they think the economy would be better within a year. As recently as December, only 28 percent were feeling positive.
Labor Department data show that in January and February, employers added a total of more than a half a million jobs. The unemployment rate is holding at 8.3 percent, down from its 10 percent peak a couple of years back. So far at least, that good hiring trend has been strong enough to offset bad news about rising gasoline prices. Retail reports show consumers are continuing to spend at a healthy pace, despite the dollar drain at the pump.
Richard Curtin directs the Consumer Sentiment Survey at the University of Michigan. He says government reports on employment don't shift so much as confirm people's own observations about the job market.
RICHARD CURTIN: Consumers really have their ears to the ground and have noticed this well before the positive job reports of the government.
SHAHANI: In the consumer survey's 60-year history, more people report hearing of job growth now than ever before. But hearing of new jobs versus getting them are two totally different things. The optimism stats are based on attitudes towards the future, not the present. Both Doherty and Curtin say they'll know a real recovery is taking hold when people report that their own economic situations are in fact improving.
CURTIN: Everyone recognizes it takes time for their own situation to improve. What's different this time, it is that this gap between an improving economy and a still dismal finances is larger than usual, and it will probably last longer given how deep the recession was.
SHAHANI: This recession does have one advantage over the last one. Coming out of 2001, the U.S. saw a jobless recovery. The economy, the GDP were growing but jobs weren't. Today, it's the reverse. We haven't had much GDP growth, according to the current estimate, yet we are seeing job growth.
That makes Princeton Professor Betsey Stevenson almost optimistic.
BETSEY STEVENSON: What we want to see is actually more people quitting.
SHAHANI: She's the former chief economist in the Obama administration's Labor Department. In this recession, the quit numbers plummeted.
STEVENSON: One of the ways in which the U.S. labor market works so well - when it works - is that we have a lot of churning. People leave their jobs and other people are able to get those jobs. And as a result, we get people in the job in which they're most productive. Well, when that process stops, it slows everything down. It really clogs up the system.
SHAHANI: On NPR's Facebook page, we asked whether you're employed and actively seeking out a better job. Among the hundreds who took the time to respond, most with jobs said they haven't yet applied elsewhere.
But Eric Sandigo says he's been sending out applications because he wants to be part of that job churn. He landed work at Kodak straight out of college. The company filed for bankruptcy in January. With departments closing and money for training dried up, Sandigo says he sees no management position to climb into. Just recently, he got his first new job offer; only it was a temporary position outside his hometown, Orlando. So he had to turn it down.
ERIC SANDIGO: I unfortunately didn't take it. It was a risk because it was moving out of the city and there wasn't any guarantee of staying after the assignment, which is why I ultimately decided to not take it.
SHAHANI: When Sandigo feels he can take such risks, Stevenson explains, he'll not only be feeling more confident, he'll know the recovery is here to stay.
Aarti Shahani, NPR News.