Monday, December 18, 2017
Business

Poll: Tampa Bay residents less optimistic about economic year ahead

ST. PETERSBURG — It sure sounds good.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has climbed more than 3,000 points since the year began. Unemployment is down. Car sales are up. People are building more homes and selling them for higher prices.

So Tampa Bay residents' optimism about their financial futures should abound, right?

Not so much.

A Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay poll this month asked 625 registered voters in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties how they believed they would be faring economically a year from now.

Just 31 percent said they anticipated being better off in 12 months — a 7 percent drop from how people answered the same question in 2012.

Forty-seven percent said they expected their financial life to be about the same and 14 percent thought it would get worse. Eight percent weren't sure.

Those responses are consistent with a national poll conducted by CNN and ORC International, which found that nearly 70 percent of those questioned felt the economy was in poor condition.

The Tampa Bay telephone poll was taken Dec. 12-17 and has a 3.9 percentage point overall margin of error.

The pessimism here, at least for some, is related to uncertainty plaguing the Affordable Care Act.

James Blair is 24 and has a degree in finance from Florida State University. He lives in Tampa, where he works on political campaigns. Blair has a stable job and expects to get a raise in the coming year, but he still doesn't expect his financial situation to improve, and that's solely because he's unsure how he'll get health insurance in 12 months — or what it will cost.

"That's the only reason I feel I would be doing worse off," he said. "I'm just worried about the expense."

Blair is covered by his employer, but he fears premiums may rise or the coverage could cease.

Fellow Hillsborough resident Christian Parada was also concerned, though for different reasons, with the new health care law. Originally from El Salvador, he is a divorced, self-employed welder who helps support his two kids in Miami. He doesn't have insurance and doesn't intend to get it.

"That's just another blow to the pocket," he said. "I'm the kind of person who thinks you shouldn't be forced to do something you don't want to do."

Parada, 38, was nervous about the penalty he might have to pay for not signing up. In Parada's income bracket, it will be 1 percent of household income, or $500 if he makes the minimum he expects of $50,000 a year. The penalty increases in subsequent years.

More notably, Parada said progress in other parts of the economy have not boosted demand for his expertise. He typically does contract work at power plants, but those jobs have dwindled. To make up for it, he has sought work in Chile, Peru and Guatemala.

"The economy," he said, "is getting better for the big fish."

For those whose money is in the right place, though, things are looking up.

Steven Wroblewski, 53, was the president of a credit union in Chicago and moved to St. Petersburg in 2007. He said he was doing better this year than last and expected more improvement between now and the end of 2014. Wroblewski said improvements to the stock market have bolstered his retirement funds.

He's also encouraged by the positive economic signs in the United States and the growing stability in Europe.

"I think we're in the middle somewhere of a long-term expansion," Wroblewski said.

But that expansion isn't good for everyone.

Marie Lessmann, 71, lives in St. Petersburg on less than $20,000 a year. Some of that comes from a pension she receives for her career with the U.S. Department of Commerce, but she's mostly supported by Social Security.

A better economy, Lessmann knows, means higher prices.

"As prices rise on a fixed income, you become worse off," she said. "I don't have more money to spend."

The cost of living increases, she added, evaporate when other costs go up proportionally more. Lessmann, for instance, anticipates much higher bills from Duke Energy in 2014.

Cornelia Coy of Tarpon Springs is 94 and has lived in the area since the 1940s. She survives each month off about $900 from Social Security and another $250 from the 20 years she worked in public school cafeterias.

In response to the poll, she said she wasn't sure how she would be doing in a year because she's not sure how Social Security will be doing then. She worries that unforeseen changes to the program could impact her.

"I have to depend on Social Security," she said. "That's all the income I've got."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (727) 893-8472.

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