It has been four years since the Great Recession began. The downturn hit the Tampa Bay area particularly hard.
Workers were laid off. Jobs became scarce. Government budgets kept shrinking. Real estate hasn't rebounded.
Now, as year five begins, many Tampa Bay residents still don't see light at the end of the tunnel.
Fifty-three percent of Hillsborough and Pinellas residents believe they and their families fared about the same economically in the past year as they did the year before, according to a poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9.
They don't expect that to change: 49 percent say their economic futures will stay the same in 2012.
For Tampa's Rick Moore, that's good: It means things won't get worse.
"At least I hope so," he said.
Moore, 56, left his construction job in 2007 to care for his terminally ill wife, Suzanne. She died two years later at age 49. Moore has no regrets about depleting their savings to be with her.
"I knew I was going to be broke," he said. "But I didn't realize everyone else was going to be broke, too."
He has returned to school to be a radiographer. He gets by on grants, student loans — and a new way of looking at life.
"When money's tight, you start to realize that maybe going out to dinners and movies and parties isn't so important," he said. "No, what's really important is being with the people you love.
"When it's not the best of times, without them it would be far worse."
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The telephone poll of 508 residents, conducted last month by Braun Research, was almost evenly split between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The overall margin of error was 4.3 percentage points. It was 6.2 for answers from Pinellas residents.
One of those was St. Petersburg's Rita Beauchamp, 62. In better times, she did all kinds of things: graphic designer, hairdresser, cosmetology teacher.
But in 2010 she and her employer parted ways. Teaching work dried up and Beauchamp already was overwhelmed by her father's broken hip and her mother's heart attack. She hasn't worked since and, because of spinal injuries from two car accidents, she isn't sure if she can commit to a job anymore.
She spends her days caring for her parents, both 90. That's her job now.
She doesn't expect better things in 2012. Her only hope is that they don't get worse, for her and her parents. She took early retirement, lives lean and is waiting to qualify for Medicare. It will be the first time in her life she will have health care benefits.
"I am attempting to remain cheerful," Beauchamp said. "It's really the only way I can survive. I'm just attempting to stay in the present and handling what's in front of me.
"If I think about what might happen, I don't feel good. It's scary."
Moore, the Tampa widower, also adjusted to living with very limited means. But his experience changed his attitudes about money and career.
Unable to once again find work in construction, Moore decided to study radiography at Hillsborough Community College. He chose a medical field because of the people he met while he was caring for his wife, who succumbed to a rare digestive and neurological disease.
He doesn't worry that a radiographer in his 50s might have trouble finding work, or that he might not make as much as he did in construction.
"If I get a job when I'm done, I'm not going to worry about how much money I'm going to make," he said. "It was about doing something rewarding. There had to be a higher purpose after going though all that.
"There had to be some better reason than making money."
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The poll found 31 percent of residents think things got worse economically this past year. But the poll also revealed a gleam of hope: 29 percent believe they will be better off a year from now.
Alexis Russell, a 28-year-old stay-at-home mom in Riverview, is one of them. Her husband works in a hot industry right now: debt collection.
"There's a lot of debt out there," she said.
But 13 percent of people, like Marta Cardone, 59, of Tampa, expect things will get worse in the next year. Three years ago, she took a leave of absence from her job transcribing doctors' voice notes to care for her ailing mother. Her mother rebounded, her career did not. Her employer replaced her, and technology rendered her skills obsolete.
Cardone likes to say that she is too old to hire and too young to retire.
"I think my age has a lot to do with it," she said. "Nobody wants to hire me because they think, 'She's close to retirement age and we don't want to invest any money in her.' "
Her last part-time job was three months ago. Soon she'll be teaching ballet to senior citizens — for one hour a week. She can't afford the debt it would require to go back to school. The government said she can't get food stamps because she never completed the phone interview. But when she calls, she said, no one ever picks up.
So Cardone spends her days looking for work and looking after her mother in the nursing home. She gets by with help from her sister.
"I cope because I am still in my own home, I'm still able to pay my bills because of my sister helping me," Cardone said. "I realize there are a lot of other people out of work and they don't even have a place to live.
"They don't have anything."
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Is there a solution to Tampa Bay's economic woes?
The poll gave residents myriad remedies to choose: getting foreclosed homes off the market; lower gas prices; lower local and state taxes; less business regulation; more public incentives to bring private jobs to the area; or more federal stimulus spending.
The poll found 39 percent of Hillsborough and Pinellas residents think the best solution is for governments to offer more financial incentives to lure companies and jobs to the region.
But Florida's job incentive programs have been problematic: Recently released information from the state showed Florida's cash incentives created a fraction of the expected jobs during the past two decades, went to some companies that cut jobs and can be difficult to track.
Still, Rallan Papesh, 49, of Palm Harbor, who calls himself a "house husband,'' didn't change his answer after hearing all that.
"I think it's worth a shot," Papesh said.
Other solutions weren't nearly as popular. Reducing the number of foreclosed homes to boost the real estate market garnered 13 percent support.
Moore, the former construction worker, doesn't think banks are doing enough to clear foreclosed homes from the market through short sales and refinancing mortgages.
"I wish the banks would take a hit like everyone else and work with us," he said. "It makes no sense. Refinance. Let people stay in their homes.
"It comes out better for everybody. I don't understand their mentality."
Lower gas prices were favored by 12 percent of residents, less business regulation by 11 percent.
Clinton Paskert, 35, a plumber and father of four in Ruskin, feels especially constrained by regulations he said burden licensed plumbers but allow unlicensed handymen to work with few sanctions if caught.
"The only punishment is for the poor guy who tried to follow the rules," Paskert said.
Nine percent of residents favor increased federal stimulus and lower local and state taxes. But Clearwater lawyer Noel White, 47, doesn't think lower taxes help the economy, especially when fees and fines rise instead. As a probate attorney, she has seen court filing costs skyrocket in recent years.
"They like to say 'Hey, we're reducing taxes,' " White said. "All they actually do is increase the other costs of just trying to run your life."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.