Recession's Toll Is Written in Cutbacks, Layoffs and Worry

Nearly four in 10 Americans, 36 percent, are concerned about being able to heat their homes this winter -- 28 percent of men, but 44 percent of women, and soaring to 68 percent of the lowest-income Americans.

Fifteen percent -- one in seven -- have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments in the past year, nearly double what it was in the teeth of the 1990-91 recession. Looking ahead, many more -- nearly four in 10 (37 percent) -- are worried about being able to keep up with future rent or mortgage payments.

That concern is 10 points higher among women than men (42 vs. 32 percent), higher among younger adults (46 percent of those under age 40) and especially high among low-income Americans: Fifty-five percent of those with incomes under $35,000 are worried about keeping up with their basic housing costs.

XMAS and BEYOND

Given these stresses, Christmas spending plans have weakened further, to their worst in polling since 1985. Fifty-seven percent of Americans now say they'll spend less on holiday gifts this year than last. The closest in any previous year was 51 percent in 1991, when holiday sales were their worst in a generation.

Separately, the weekly ABC News Consumer Comfort Index is in the midst of its worst stretch since it began 23 years ago: Just 7 percent of Americans say the economy's in good shape, 22 percent call it a good time to spend money and fewer than half, 44 percent, rate their personal finances positively.

There are signs, moreover, of potentially deeper problems ahead. Many of these measures are dramatically worse among members of households in which someone's lost a job or had their pay or work hours cut -- indicating that further contraction in employment or incomes would have a strongly negative effect on consumer attitudes.

People who report a layoff in their household, for instance, are nearly 30 points more likely than other Americans to say they're cutting back on holiday spending -- 81 percent vs. 52 percent. They're nearly 30 points more apt to be "very worried" about maintaining their standard of living and 35 points more likely to be "very concerned" about paying for health care. And 41 percent in this group report falling behind on their rent or mortgage payments. That compares with just 9 percent of those who haven't been hit by a job loss.

POLICY and POLITICS

Barack Obama's election hasn't changed the basic dynamic; 82 percent still say the country is "seriously off on the wrong track," eight points shy of the record level in mid-October but still an astonishing number.

Asked the single biggest problem for Obama and the Congress to address, 66 percent cite economic issues -- a huge level of agreement on an open-ended question. And while 55 percent say Obama's off to a good start on the economy, for the first time in ABC/Post polling, just over half don't think there's much he can do to improve it.

Obama does shine in comparison to George W. Bush: Just 24 percent approve of his handling of the economy; likewise, just 23 percent approve of the overall federal response to the economic situation. And 69 percent don't think the government has put in place adequate controls on how economic recovery money is being spent.

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