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Recent surveys find most Americans think the economy is in bad shape and getting worse. NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health have conducted a poll in Ohio, an important political swing state, and among the results, 77 percent said jobs are difficult to find. NPR's Yuki Noguchi visited three families in Ohio to find out how the economy is affecting their lives.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Brian Draper lives in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, in the same house he grew up in. It's a stable neighborhood, and many of the families have lived there for decades. But getting his three kids the same middle-class comforts his parents provided is a tough task for Draper and his wife.

They both work for the county. He's a criminal investigator, his wife Shanta is a nurse's assistant for the county hospital; and now with the county cutting back, they're confronting something entirely new: the prospect of layoffs.

Mr. BRIAN DRAPER (Criminal Investigator): You know, it's always - there was always a thought, you know, go into public service, and you'll always have a job, but it's - you know, it's scary that, you know, that the term layoff, you know, is being spoken right now.

NOGUCHI: The Drapers' only income hike in five years was small. Meanwhile, the cost of food, gas and natural gas nearly doubled, so in recent months they started tracking every dollar. The Disney vacation they wanted became a picnic at the zoo. The Drapers just grimace and pay more for food, but Brian Draper says some of the people he investigates are desperate.

Mr. DRAPER: They're doing things because the economy is so bad - you know, stealing copper pipes. But you know, some guys that have done it, it's like, you know, I don't have a job. I have no education. I've got to feed myself. I've got to feed, you know, my family.

NOGUCHI: And that's why for the first time food prices register as a real concern for Draper.

(Soundbite of cash register)

NOGUCHI: At Dave's Supermarket near his house, he says he now micromanages what goes in the grocery cart, right down to the cheese.

Mr. DRAPER: We usually - we used to get Kraft, but instead we get - we get another brand instead now because of the prices. Oh, and I see they've got a sale on right now, and that's - you know, it's $2.50 a pack here, whereas, you know, Kraft is $3.69 or, you know, this other one is $4.89. You know, the prices weren't like that.

NOGUCHI: Draper keeps a precise mental log of prices, not only at nearby Dave's Supermarket but at Sam's Club and ALDIs, where things tend to run a little cheaper. At every turn he sees injustice.

Mr. DRAPER: And (unintelligible) eggs, you know, $1.75. That's - you know, they were $1.19 a year ago. They weren't that expensive.

NOGUCHI: He says he never used to track these things. Now he hovers over the meat aisle like an eagle, eyeing a $7 package, then swooping in on it.

Mr. DRAPER: Right before the holiday we came in and we bought a family pack and it was $10.00 of ground beef, but hey, but I'll take it.

NOGUCHI: This trip cost him about $15. Last year, he says, it would have cost no more than $10.

On the western side of the state, in a rural area called St. Mary's, real estate agent Judy Weng stands outside of Wright State University. She wonders if high food and gas prices will hurt her grandkids' ability to pay for college.

Ms. JUDY WENG (Real Estate Agent): Families just do not have the extra money to put away for college for their kids, and there's nothing to save. You know, it's taking everything that you make to get by.

NOGUCHI: Weng's daughter has three teens, one of whom she says eats enough to feed three. The extra cost of everything means her son-in-law is always working at the factory.

Ms. WENG: He's been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for probably a year, and he takes all the hours that he can get.

NOGUCHI: Weng is in the upper income bracket, but even she's working harder. She used to sell homes that cost a quarter of a million dollars. We stand gazing up at a huge brick Victorian with a wraparound porch. A year ago it would have been a hot property at $275,000, but its owner recently pulled it off the market because a sharp hike in natural gas prices has made homes like these less desirable.

Ms. WENG: They were wonderful for large families. You had huge rooms, lots of fireplaces, lots of heating sources, but right now, like I said with the gas cost being this high, you just - unless you really have to sell one, you don't have it on the market.

NOGUCHI: The average price of the homes she sells are half what they were a year ago. To maintain her income, Weng says she'll have to sell twice as many houses. That means twice as much driving and paying lots more at the pump.

Ms. WENG: You know, America was built on driving. People like to drive in this country. We have to find a way for people to enjoy this country, and if they can't get to work, something needs to be done.

NOGUCHI: For now, the solution for those who have work is to open their wallets and shell out more. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

NORRIS: And tomorrow on our program, Yuki reports on a family in Ohio struggling to afford the means of getting to work: a car.

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