Mood of the Nation: Some optimism amid struggles

Associated Press Modified: November 3, 2012 at 10:31 am •  Published: November 3, 2012
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"People will always need therapy," she says. "My field is in demand."

Together with her husband, an Army reservist and military contractor, Williams has maintained a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle. They have two children: One is in college; the other is working on an internship and attending college classes.

She's kept up contributions to her 401(k) and doesn't fret about retirement. The couple owns a home that's held its value. This year, they had hardwood floors installed in the kitchen and bathroom.

"The houses in our neighborhood are selling," she says. "If we wanted to get out, we would make a nice profit."

In her view, the president doesn't deserve all the blame for the still-weak economy or high unemployment, now at 7.9 percent. She wishes Republicans and Democrats would work more cooperatively to strengthen the economy.

"My dream for America," Williams says, "is that we'll go back to our core values of taking care of other people and looking out for other people instead of just looking out for ourselves."

— Associated Press Writer Michael Sandler

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When Ray Arvin isn't worrying about his own financial plight, he's fretting about the government's. He's troubled by gaping budget deficits and galled by what he calls lax leadership in Washington.

What America needs, Arvin says, is to restore a spirit of individual self-reliance. And force the government to become leaner and more responsible.

"I'm against that government-down approach — spending without a thought of how we are going to balance the checkbook," Arvin says.

He tries to live by his own words.

When his company went bust three years ago, Arvin fell into unemployment for several months. He had blown through his savings — more than $100,000 — trying to save his business.

He now works in sales for a company that sells supplies to power companies. His income has shrunk.

Arvin's 2005 Chevy Suburban has 235,000 miles on it. When gas prices rise, his take-home pay drops. When the car breaks down, he fixes it himself to save money.

"I've lost my retirement that I had built up," he says. "I'm having to start from scratch right now, looking at an economy and a government that is going to make my great-grandchildren pay the price for what they're doing."

Political leaders in Washington leave him shaking his head. It isn't just President Barack Obama. Arvin opposes Obama. But he's also appalled by the actions of long-serving politicians.

"We have too many people in government who have made it their career to be in government," he says. "And they don't seem to be in it for the country. They seem to be in it for themselves or their party."

He isn't looking for the government to help restore his financial security. He says he'll keep working hard and hope for the best.

It's an impulse rooted in American culture, he says.

"What made our country great," Arvin says, "was people sucking it up, working hard and being energized to go in a direction because they could believe in their dreams and know their dreams were possible because they believed in themselves."

One way he thinks he may realize that dream is with an invention he hopes catches fire: A makeup case Arvin decided to design after noticing how powder from his wife's compact case would spill.

His wife is trying to turn the cases into a business. He says she's sold hundreds of them at trade shows and on eBay. And Arvin is seeking a patent for his design.

"Maybe this will take off," he says. "Who knows? But you just have to keep trying and not give up. That's the American way."

— Associated Press Writer Mitch Weiss

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The low point for Brookside Flooring came two or three years ago.

The housing bubble had wrecked South Florida's home market. Construction barely existed. Companies were closing or shedding staff.

Jay Baker's company managed to survive. But it suffered.

Now? Business has rebounded in the past few months. Sales are still down by about a third since 2008.

But when you've withstood a savage housing bust, any sustained improvement feels gratifying.

"Slowly but surely, it's coming back," Baker says. "I really can't pinpoint it. All I know is that it's getting better, and it makes me happy."

Baker sees the overall economy strengthening, too — and for that, he credits President Barack Obama for pushing his economic agenda against sharp Republican resistance.

U.S. unemployment has dipped, Baker notes. Stock prices have surged more than 13 percent this year. Consumers are more confident and spending a bit more.

When more people are working, Baker says, everyone who depends on a robust economy gains.

People aren't just more apt to replace the flooring in their home or business, he says. Restaurants and clothing stores benefit. So do auto dealers, contractors and furniture shops.

"In a small town, when a large business goes out of business, the people are out of a job, but all of the small businesses are affected, too," he says. "When business is better, everybody's affected."

Which helps explain why, despite his setbacks, Baker remains an optimist.

But also a realist. To blunt the pain of higher gasoline prices, for example, he's invested in a Toyota Prius for the long run. His home's value has tumbled. And while it's still worth more than he paid for it about 13 years ago, Baker hardly expects its value to soar in coming years.

He's confident his business will thrive — if the construction industry can sustain its gradual recovery and if employers eventually start hiring as freely as they did before the Great Recession struck nearly five years ago.

"My wish for America is to get out of any recession or depression and go positive," Baker says. "Let people have jobs again."

— Associated Press Writer Matt Sedensky

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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A home in foreclosure. Damaged credit. Vanished savings.

This isn't exactly how Amanda and Chris Folk envisioned life would be like in 2012.

Until about five years ago, the Folks were living comfortably with their two children, now 6 and 9, outside Boise, Idaho. They owned a home. Chris made a good living as a self-employed flooring installer. Weekend trips out of town were a pleasurable routine.

Once Boise-area home prices collapsed, though, the Folks' lifestyle did, too. Work dried up for Chris. Amanda quit college. And they moved to Montana to be closer to her family.

An oil boom was boosting the eastern Montana economy, and Chris slowly rebuilt his flooring business. Amanda took a job as a nurse's assistant.

But during the transition, the family's income sank. They could no longer keep up with mortgage payments on their Idaho home. So for the past three years, the house has languished in foreclosure.

The family's credit is shot. They blew through nearly $30,000 in savings, mainly on mortgage payments. Attorneys tell them their only way out is bankruptcy protection.

"Everything I worked so hard for is just slipping away," Chris Folk says. "It just feels so far away to get back to where we were."

The Folks can't afford to save for retirement. They struggle to cover $1,280 in monthly rent. Gasoline expenses sometimes hit $600 a month to fuel Chris' van, so he can reach out-of-town flooring jobs.

They say the economy seems tilted: Big banks wield power. Legislators bow to corporate interests. The rich get richer while the working class fall further behind.

They're voting for President Barack Obama with no enthusiasm. Yet they say their discontent with his handling of the economy is outweighed by Mitt Romney's corporate ties.

Amanda Folk is pursuing a communications degree at Montana State University, Billings. She's "scared to death" she won't find a job in public relations or a related field after graduation to repay $25,000 in student loans.

She hasn't returned to their Idaho house in two years; she can't bear it. Vandals have broken in. A former neighbor has taken to mowing the lawn. The couple is reluctant to rent the house for fear that their lender would end up with whatever money they collected.

They've cancelled their home phone and Internet service. Amanda Folk no longer shops at an organic food co-op.

They're seeking a smaller place to rent. But they don't want to move far. Their daughter has cycled through four elementary schools in the past few years.

"The hardest part is the psychological part of it," Amanda Folk says. "Our kids don't have any sense of security. My daughter still asks, 'Are we going to be here next year?'"

— Associated Press Writer Matthew Brown



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