Sour U.S. economy has put 40% of Americans on edge

Allison Busch says her anxiety about the economy began to rise in September: The stock market careened, and she watched the collapse of Lehman Bros., a financial giant.

By November, she says, her hopes lifted when Barack Obama was elected president. But they dimmed as Christmas approached. In January, her worrying rose again.

So although her husband has a good-paying job as a real estate developer, Busch is planning for the day he does not.

"I told my husband, when he calls me to say he was fired, I'll probably cry and fall apart for 24 hours," says Busch, 39, a lawyer who lives in South Orange, N.J. "Then I'll calm down, and we'll figure it out."

The year 2008 gave Americans an unending supply of dizzying and jaw-dropping events that affected jobs, businesses, personal fortunes and nearly every facet of our lives.

A year-long poll conducted by Gallup and Tennessee-based health management company Healthways, taking the daily pulse of Americans' physical, emotional and economic well-being, found that worries about money grew sharply as 2008 progressed: 14 million more people worried about money at the end of the year than at the beginning, says Jim Harter, a chief scientist for Gallup who oversaw the research on workplace and well-being.

"It's moved from about 3 in 10 to about 4 in 10 over the course of the year, so ... it's a pretty significant finding," Harter says.

Worries grew steadily in 2008 before a sharp drop in December, likely due to the holiday season, he says: "I imagine people did worry less because they were with family and friends... They probably took some time off from their worry."

The poll shows those ages 30-49 — often raising young children while assisting aging parents — were the most likely to worry. Those 18-29, just starting to build their financial futures, followed.

Americans 65 and older worried the least, their senior years cushioned by traditional pensions and government benefits such as Social Security and Medicare, says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Among ethnic groups, Latinos were the most anxious, just ahead of blacks.

Excessive worry can affect not only individuals, and families, but the entire economy, analysts say.

"Life stressors such as losing a job can really lead to emotional states such as depression," says Joseph Priester, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern California and former president of the Society for Consumer Psychology.

"But then there's a second aspect where being indirectly affected or just hearing about it in the news a lot can shift you into a defensive stance.

"That, in turn, influences how we consume, which, in effect, reinforces the recession."

Anxiety and second jobs

Joe Cuker, 33, a father of three in St. Louis, became his family's sole breadwinner when his wife, Jennifer, was laid off by Anheuser-Busch in December.

A bank manager, he works seven days a week, selling furniture on weekends to supplement his income.

"There's definitely anxiety," says Cuker, whose employer is cutting his salary by 5% this year.

His worrying began last summer, when economic tremors had begun to ripple across the country.

In May, Disney said it would close nearly 100 stores. American Airlines became the first airline to charge passengers for checking a single piece of luggage on trips. In June, the average price of a gallon of gas topped $4 for the first time in U.S. history.

And in St. Louis, rumors began to swirl that Anheuser-Busch might be taken over by another company.

Cuker grew more concerned in the fall, as financial institutions such as Lehman Bros.filed for bankruptcy or were taken over by federal regulators or other banks.

"I remember sitting there and ... thinking to myself, 'Holy cow. This isn't good,' " he says.

In October, Cuker got the second job that brings in an extra $5,000 a year. It came just in time. In November, Belgium-based InBev completed its takeover of Anheuser-Busch. By Christmas, Jennifer's job was gone.

The family's income dropped from about $93,000 to $47,000 a year. After paying their $1,700 mortgage and some of their roughly $50,000 in credit card debt each month, Cuker says, there's barely $200 left.

So they tap their savings, and weigh every expenditure — from an ice cream cone to a haircut.

"Sometimes you can't afford to get food," he says. "We just scrape whatever's in (the pantry)."

Jennifer remains unemployed, but is searching for a job.

In February, Joe tried to get food stamps and make payment arrangements with his credit card companies. But he was turned down for both — because he earned too much money to qualify for food aid, and he already had the lowest interest rates offered on his cards.

"What's most stressful is trying to be proactive and responsible," he says, "and that doesn't get you anywhere."

Joe Cuker is part of the age group that worried about money the most. About 43% of people 30-49 who were surveyed throughout last year said they had worried about money the day before, according to the poll.

"They're planning for their families' futures," says Frey. "They're going to be the mainstay of people older and younger than them. And they're just scared."

Latinos feel the strain

Among ethnic groups, Latinos were the most likely to be concerned, with 42% saying they worried about money the day before. Blacks were close behind, at 41%, while 35% of whites and 35% of Asians said the same.

"Latinos are probably the most aspirational of all the groups in the U.S.," Frey says.

During the last decade, "They got a foothold into the suburbs. They got a foothold into the housing market, and now it's all crashing down around them."

From 2000 through 2006, the unemployment gap between Latinos and non-Latinos virtually disappeared, says Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

As the recession has deepened, however, the gulf has returned.

In February, the unemployment rate among Latinos was 10.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only the rate among black workers was higher, at 13.4%.

"A lot of the job losses have come in construction and ... among foreign-born Hispanics," Lopez says. "I think this uncertainty about jobs is partly what's driving this uncertainty about finances."

In July, as Starbucks said it would close 600 of its shops and Congress began steps to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Marta and Alberto Torres of St. Louis began to have troubles of their own.

At the factory where Alberto Torres worked, bosses started cutting overtime that added at least $400 a month to the family's income. By October, workers were being laid off.

Marta Torres was relieved when her husband was spared. But she cannot keep her worries at bay.

"Of course, whenever he tells me someone got laid off, we feel fear," says Torres, 39, who works as a program coordinator for Catholic Charities. "What if the next one is him?"

Together, the couple bring home roughly $50,000 annually. They have bought groceries for friends who have lost their jobs. And they are helping struggling relatives in Mexico, including her father, who was diagnosed with cancer in December.

"When things are bad here in the United States," Torres says, "they are worse there."

Black workers losing ground

For more than a generation, black workers have struggled to gain financial parity. Now, the economic downturn threatens to erode what gains have been made.

"African Americans make on average only about two-thirds as much as non-Hispanic whites," says David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on policy issues of particular concern to blacks.

"Now you have real fears of losing jobs, so under those circumstances, it's not at all surprising that the feeling right now is of great economic anxiety."

Less than two years ago, Verna Weeks, 41, and her husband, Abdullah, 37, of Wilmington, Del., earned more than $160,000 a year.

He was a church administrator. And her real estate appraisal business was doing so well, she eventually cut back her hours at State Farm Insurance, where she'd worked for 17 years.

Then, at the end of 2007, Abdullah lost his job. He found work in late February 2008 as a repair specialist for Apple, but Verna says her anxiety has lingered.

"There were times when you went to sleep thinking about it," Weeks says of their money woes, "and I would wake up, and that would be the first thing on my mind."

The fallout from the faltering economy was all around her throughout 2008. She received fewer requests for appraisals, and her dream of becoming a full-time entrepreneur began to evaporate.

In August, with their household income cut nearly in half, the Weekses chose not to buy their children new school uniforms.

By October, Verna Weeks was asking to again work full time for State Farm, but "because of the economy," she was told no.

Her worries go beyond her front door: Her sister is facing foreclosure.

Yet it was in December, when Weeks' in-laws said they no longer could give an allowance to her children, that Weeks became outright fearful about the future as well as the present.

"To see them. .. start saying no to even their grandkids ... it's frightening," she says. "When I'm 60, am I ... going to be able to do anything for my grandkids?. .. Will we even be able to retire when we want to?"

Rakia Clark, 30, of Manhattan stands on the cusp of the two generations most likely to be nervous about the economy.

She remembers a moment in September that seemed especially ominous, when Republican presidential nominee John McCain suspended his campaign to focus on the financial crisis.

"It just seemed more urgent," says Clark, who was then an editor at Kensington Publishing, earning more than $50,000 a year.

When some of her friends began to get pink slips in October, "I made it a point to pay off all the remaining debts I had," she says. "I knew if necessary, I could live off of Ramen noodles and Pop-Tarts, but I didn't want ... to owe anybody money."

Her angst eased around Christmas, when instead of layoffs, her company handed out yearly bonuses. But a month later, she and three others were let go.

Her spirits sagged during those first days, but soon she began to pursue freelance editing. The work has flowed in since.

"If it continues to be this steady," says Clark, "I will be better off financially than I was as a full-time employee."

So, for now, she is not worried.

"In one way it was a bad thing to lose my job," she says.

"But it's created room for all these other things that so far have proven very fruitful and fulfilling."

Seniors not as stressed

The worry gap between those younger than 65 and those entering their senior years was stark. Only 19% of those 65 and older were stressed about money the day before.

"In retrospect, (it) makes sense," Harter says of the relative calm among seniors. "They may have been less invested in the markets ... and that group may be less susceptible to all of the things that happened in the last year with the economy."

Frey added that the oldest Americans have lived through many national crises and may be more stoic.

"They've seen the ups and the downs," he says.

Floyd Schultz, 75, of Coral Springs, Fla., was a child of the Depression. Born in 1933, he faintly recalls his parents receiving aid so they could buy food.

That experience shaped him, making Schultz a conservative investor. A pharmacist, he still works part time, and his 67-year-old wife, Marcia, works full time as a psychologist.

Having a job has helped keep his worry in check.

"We're basically living off current income, plus Social Security," says Schultz, noting that they have been able to leave their retirement funds untouched. "If we had to dip in, we'd be in trouble."

Perhaps more than worry, he feels anger.

"Frankly, I would like to see some people in jail," says Schultz, of the government officials and bankers whose actions, he believes, helped precipitate the current crisis. "It's unconscionable."

With at least 25% of their retirement savings gone in the slumping market, Schultz says his wife probably will have to postpone her plans to retire this year. Still, he remains an optimist.

"You have to believe our country ... will come back," he says.

"If it doesn't, none of this is going to matter."

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