DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Heading into the Labor Day weekend the American labor force is not all that happy. There are various signs that the U.S. economy is on the mend but a new survey from Rutgers University found two of three Americans have felt no improvement over the last year and only about one in four expect things to get better in the year to come. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama spent much of the summer playing cheerleader for the U.S. economy and if you look at the economic indicators there's a lot to cheer about. Private employers have added nearly 10 million jobs in recent years. Unemployment has fallen to just above 6 percent. Auto sales are booming and forecasters expect a healthy back-to-school shopping season.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By almost every measure we are better off now than we were when I took office.
HORSLEY: So, why are so many Americans in such a grumpy mood about the economy? Just ask Robert Stoveken, a car salesman from West Virginia. While auto sales have bounced back from the depths of the downturn, Stoveken says his personal fortunes have never fully recovered.
ROBERT STOVEKEN: In the last six years I've switched jobs three times and I'm not making more money than it did three years ago and not as much as I did six years ago.
HORSLEY: Once more Stoveken worries the economy won't be much better by the time his high school aged daughter enters the job market a few years from now.
STOVEKEN: She's going to go to college and get a degree in something that she's probably not going to be able to get a job in, you know. I want her to follow her dreams but I don't think the dreams are going to be a good paying job.
HORSLEY: Stoveken is one of more than 1,100 people nationwide who were surveyed by Rutgers University about how they'd been affected by the recession and its aftermath. Researcher Cliff Zukin says 42 percent of those polled are still worse off than when the recession began. While only a third came through the downturn unscathed.
CLIFF ZUKIN: What you're seeing here is despite outside numbers the quality of people's lives has not gotten better and they don't expect to get better.
HORSLEY: Another survey respondent, Nina, is a college student in New Jersey, who's studying to be a special ed teacher. Her mother always told her that a college degree would be her ticket to economic success. But Nina's watched her older brother struggle to find work. At age 30 he's still living at home.
NINA: The amount of money that you're making when you're working doesn't equal up to being able to support yourself. You know, maybe go to the movies, go out to eat once, I don't think it's supporting that.
HORSLEY: While the recession officially ended years ago, Zukin says it continues to cast a long shadow over people's attitudes, one that's grown darker with the passage of time. Even five years ago when the unemployment rate was near 10 percent, most Americans thought the effects of the downturn would be short-lived. Today, after a painfully slow recovery, 71 percent of those surveyed have come to see the damage as permanent.
ZUKIN: There is just such a deep sense of pessimism and malaise in the country and we really do have a very different political, social and economic culture coming out of the recession or not coming out of the recession than we did before it started.
HORSLEY: When President Obama began his second term a year and a half ago, there were still some hope the federal government might be able to address such challenges. Today only about one in five Americans has any confidence in government's ability to act. One might expect that would hurt the Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections but the Rutgers survey found even less faith in giving congressional Republicans control of the economy. Stoveken, the West Virginia car salesman is doubtful the U.S. economy will ever return to the kind of broad-based prosperity that Americans once took for granted.
STOVEKEN: There was an American dream where the middle class was happy to be the middle class. You still had rich people and poor people but nowadays there's not going to be a middle-class. It's going to be those that have and those that have not.
HORSLEY: Just yesterday the S&P 500 Stock Index closed at a new record high. But only about one in seven people Rutgers surveyed was cheered by that. Most said the stock market has little bearing on their family's finances. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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