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Poll: 2015 doesn't bring Tampa Bay residents much change financially

Jane Engles hears about new jobs on the news all the time, but she's not convinced that the labor market is as good as it looks.

Her husband got a raise in 2015, but only because his union job guaranteed one. Her sister, a stay-at-home mom, wants a part-time job to make some extra money, but she's had no luck so far.

"She can't find a job to save her soul," said Engles, 34, of Palm Harbor.

All things considered, she said, things look about like they did last year — no better, no worse.

Engles is in the majority. Nearly two-thirds of Tampa Bay residents say their finances in 2015 looked about the way they did the year before, and nearly half expect the same a year from now, according to a Tampa Bay Times/10News WTSP poll conducted last month.

On the one hand, that's good news: After a prolonged and painful downturn, the local economy has stabilized. More people say their finances are steady, and fewer say they're getting worse.

But then, such a so-so sentiment hardly inspires confidence. Only 18 percent of respondents said they were better off than they were in 2014, according to the poll of 605 registered voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

"I think people are treading water — they're not getting ahead, they're not falling behind," said Kevin Gres, 56, of St. Petersburg.

The culprit, economists say: Many people aren't getting raises, and those who have haven't gotten big ones.

Nationwide, wages were rising at a 3.1 percent clip in November, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. That's well above the depths of the recession, but still lagging behind better times. In the decade before the recession, the Atlanta Fed's measure of wage growth never dipped that low.

"That's the ultimate driver of people's views of how they're doing economically or financially," said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. "If they're getting significant raises over the course of the year, they're going to feel better off — much more so than some savings from lower gas prices that may or may not be here six months from today."

The issue of slow-to-grow salaries is especially problematic in the bay area. Salaries rose just 2.4 percent in Hillsborough County and 0.6 percent in Pinellas County from June 2014 to June 2015, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said last month. Line up the 342 largest counties in the United States, and Pinellas would rank No. 311.

"It doesn't look too good there," Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner said as he read down a list of counties.

The region's sluggish salaries come in the face of fast job growth. Florida added more jobs than any other state in November, and the Tampa metropolitan area was among the fastest-growing in the state. The local unemployment rate is 4.6 percent, which would typically make for a robust job market.

The disconnect owes in part to the way the jobless rate is calculated. People who give up on looking for work or take part-time jobs aren't counted, and a broader measure of underemployment has been slower to fall.

But Tampa Bay isn't alone. The U.S. economy has shown a mixed bag of good news and bad recently, adding up to a year that has left many people feeling like they ended 2015 where they started.

Unemployment is down, but wages aren't growing much. Gasoline is cheap, but it hasn't boosted consumer spending as much as economists expected. And after an August nosedive and months of uncertainty, the stock market finished 2015 close to even, with the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index closing the year down 0.7 percent.

"Consumers are continuing to apply the money they have left over at the end of the month to pay down debt," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com. "There are still fault lines in the U.S. economy."

And because Tampa Bay and Florida have lots of service sector jobs, they tend to be tied to whatever is happening in the U.S. economy overall, said Frank Ghannadian, dean of the College of Business at the University of Tampa.

"Tampa Bay in the last several years has always been kind of a follower in terms of what's going on," Ghannadian said. "When you have a service economy, that's going to be a little bit laggy."

It's not clear when wages might start growing faster nationwide, but recent surveys suggest that American workers might be waiting awhile longer for that big raise. The human resources firm Towers Watson, for one, said in August that the United States was in for another round of 3 percent raises in 2016.

Still, Tampa Bay residents showed a touch of optimism about where their finances will stand this time next year. About a third of those polled said they were expecting things to get better next year. Only a tenth thought they would be worse off.

"There's a little bit of hope that things are going to get better, but certainly not widespread belief in a dramatic change of fortunes," said Snaith, the economist at the University of Central Florida. "It's been a historically weak recovery, but there's no fear that a downturn in the economy is in the offing."

Contact Thad Moore at tmoore@tampabay.com. Follow @thadmoore.

Economy holding steady

When it comes to their finances, most people finished 2015 the same way they started it, according to a Dec. 3-10 poll of 605 registered voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. And their outlook for 2016 looks mostly the same. The Tampa Bay Times/10News WTSP poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Thinking about how you and your family are faring economically compared to a year ago, are you better off, worse off or about the same?

Better off: 18 percent

Worse off: 18 percent

About the same: 63 percent

Not sure: 1 percent

Looking ahead, do you think you and your family will be better off or worse off economically one year from now, or will you be about the same as you are now?

Better off: 34 percent

Worse off: 10 percent

About the same: 49 percent

Not sure: 7 percent

Source: Braun Research, a Princeton, N.J., polling firm

Poll: 2015 doesn't bring Tampa Bay residents much change financially 01/01/16 [Last modified: Friday, January 1, 2016 7:23pm]
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