Financial Security

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The U.S. economy is the strongest in the world, and 3 out of 4 Americans told Gallup they are satisfied with their standard of living. Jobs, in particular, are plentiful. Yet despite the nation's unprecedented boom, most Americans say they are worried that the good times won't last, and that they haven't been able to save much, or buy everything they want or need. They're also concerned about the widening gap between rich and poor, and between workers with college degrees and those with high school diplomas. It is in this worrisome context that 77 percent of voters recently told Gallup that the presidential candidates' positions on the economy will be an "extremely important" or a "very important" influence on their vote. Of equal significance to more than two-thirds of Americans are the candidates' positions on the related issues of federal taxes and how the government will use the budget surplus.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll this summer, roughly 75 percent of Americans said either Texas Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore would make sure the economy remains strong. This high level of confidence and the nation's decade-long boom, help explain why voters rank some other issues such as Social Security, education, and health care as higher priorities than the economy. Americans also acknowledge that the President's economic role is limited. In a May survey by the Los Angeles Times, only 14 percent of survey participants gave President Clinton the most credit for the good economy: 26 percent credited the technology industry, 10 percent cited the Federal Reserve Board, 9 percent said Congressional Democrats, 9 percent said the stock market, 9 percent said they didn't know, 7 percent said Congressional Republicans, and 16 percent said "all, or a combination of the above" deserved credit.

Fueled by gains in worker productivity, low inflation, low unemployment, and stable wages, the economic boom shows no signs of stalling before the November elections. In his mid-year analysis, Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Chairman, reported that economic growth has slowed a bit, and perhaps only temporarily. He attributed the slowdown, in part, to consumers' rising debt burden and the spike in oil and gasoline prices, which has cost consumers $75 billion, or the equivalent of a 1 percent tax on their disposable income.

The Fed forecast is for a slowdown in the growth of the nation's gross domestic product (the market value of goods and service produced within a country) to between 4 percent and 4.5 percent for 2000, down from the 5.4 percent annual pace set in the first quarter of 2000. Greenspan said the biggest threat to the economy is still inflation, which he projected will increase to a rate of 2.75 percent this year, up from 2.7 percent in 1999, and below 2 percent in 1998 and 1997.

To Americans, who carry a record personal debt of $1.23 trillion, inflation is of less immediate concern than rising interest rates, and the instant havoc they can wreak on the family budget. One in three Americans cited rising interest rates as the greatest threat to their financial security, while only one in five cited either rising inflation or a decline in the stock market, according to a May survey by Hart and Teeter/NBC News/The Wall Street Journal.

But the public's perspective is unstable and difficult to read, as their answers to survey questions vary considerably with changes in wording and choices. In a CBS News survey last year, for example, the public was split almost evenly on how to use the federal surplus: 44 percent said "cut taxes" and 42 percent said "pay for social programs." But, in a February poll by Princeton Survey Research, when another question offered more choices and information about ways to use the surplus, public support for tax cuts shrank to 12 percent. By comparison, 44 percent selected "help make Social Security and Medicare programs financially secure," 24 percent selected "increased spending on domestic programs, such as health, education, and the environment," 18 percent picked "pay off the national debt more quickly," and 2 percent answered "don't know." Given the complexity of the issue, "don't know" seems like an astute answer.

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