As Reopening Starts, Americans Expect Recovery to Take Years

Businesses are beginning to reopen and new coronavirus cases are declining, but Americans don’t expect life — or the economy — to return to normal any time soon.

Only one in five Americans expects overall business conditions to be “very” or “somewhat” good over the next year, according to a poll conducted this month for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey. Sixty percent said they expected the next five years to be characterized by “periods of widespread unemployment or depression.”

Those numbers are little changed from a month earlier, and may even reflect a slight decline in outlook, signaling that the reopenings and federal and state political moves to deal with the pandemic have had little impact on confidence.

Other data tells a similar story. A survey from the University of Michigan last week found that consumers’ assessment of current economic conditions had improved modestly in early May, but that their view of the future had continued to darken.

Consumers have good reason for that pessimism. Economists, who once expected a swift, “V-shaped” recovery, now say unemployment is likely to remain elevated for years. In testimony before a Senate committee on Tuesday, Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, both warned that further job losses were likely — although they disagreed sharply about the best policies to foster growth.

Consumers’ bleak outlook, however justified, could have serious implications for the economic recovery. If Americans fear that their jobs are in jeopardy or that business will remain slow, they may be less likely to spend even if their personal finances are stable.

Emily Williams, a financial analyst for a mortgage servicing company in South Carolina, has been able to do her job remotely. Her husband, who sells tires for construction equipment, has lost some work, but they have saved money on day care now that both are at home.

Ms. Williams is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for an economic recovery, which she thinks will be faster than after the 2008-9 recession. But she and her husband are saving money and preparing for the worst.

“Obviously we’re very thankful for our situation, but it also makes us kind of cautious,” she said. “We’re making sure that we save, because we don’t know what’s going to happen, especially with my husband’s job. We’re kind of preparing in case we later are impacted.”

Among those surveyed who were working before the pandemic, about one in 10 had lost their jobs in the last two months, and roughly one-third had had their hours cut or otherwise lost income. Of those who had kept their jobs, about one in three were at least somewhat worried about losing them.

Democrats are more pessimistic than Republicans, as they have been throughout President Trump’s term. But confidence has fallen sharply among members of both parties. In February, before the coronavirus outbreak began to spread widely in the United States, nearly 80 percent of Republicans said they expected business conditions over the next year to be good; in May, just 35 percent said so. Among Democrats, that share fell to 8 percent from 18 percent.

Perhaps the starkest divide, however, is between those who have already lost jobs and those who have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic’s economic toll.

Among those who have kept their job and their hours, more than 80 percent say their finances are at least as good as a year ago. They are relatively unconcerned about the health risks of returning to work. Most are confident that their finances will remain steady over the next year, even as they worry about the broader economy.

For those who have lost their jobs, however, the picture is different. Two-thirds say their finances have taken a hit, and most don’t expect their situation to improve over the next year. Many are skeptical that they will quickly find a new job, and are worried about the health risks if they do return to work. And despite the federal government’s steps to expand access to unemployment benefits during the crisis, most were not yet receiving benefits as of early May.

Eve Gutierrez, a massage therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been unable to work since mid-March, when the pandemic shut down massage studios and other in-person businesses.

Ms. Gutierrez, 39, is self-employed, meaning she wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for unemployment benefits. The congressional aid package extended the system to cover workers like her. But she has yet to receive a check. She has been borrowing from her brother to pay rent and meet other expenses.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” she said. Without her brother, “I don’t know what I would have done.”

Ms. Gutierrez is optimistic that she’ll collect unemployment benefits. But they will be a stopgap. Massage studios fall under Phase 3 of California’s reopening plan, meaning it could be weeks or months before they are allowed to reopen in big cities.

Even then, Ms. Gutierrez doesn’t know what business will look like. The massage therapy business in the Bay Area has thrived in recent years, in part because tech firms have offered in-office chair massages to their workers. Now those programs are suspended, and even when offices reopen, it isn’t clear whether companies will bring massages back in what is likely to be an era of cost-cutting.

Ms. Gutierrez said that after 12 years as a full-time massage therapist, she would probably have to find other work. But that, too, is daunting, with millions of other people unemployed.

“It’s definitely unsettling,” she said.

For workers who have kept their jobs and are able to work from home, the experience has been different. They have kept their incomes, and in many cases their expenses have fallen, leaving them in better financial shape than before the crisis.

Logynn Hailley lives in Austin, Texas, and works as an artist for a company that makes games like slot machines for mobile phones — a rare example of a business that is thriving at a time of stay-at-home orders. She has received three job offers since the pandemic began.

Ms. Hailley’s life has changed in recent months, but it isn’t necessarily worse. She is working from home, doing yoga in the morning in place of her commute and cooking at home instead of eating out. Her only outings have been a handful of trips to the grocery store.

“Other than that, my car hasn’t left the driveway, and I haven’t missed it personally at all,” she said.

Ms. Hailley, 40, said she felt fortunate, and a bit uncomfortable with how little she had been affected. She knows people who have lost jobs or gotten sick. She worries that states — including Texas — are opening up too quickly. She has stepped up her charitable giving.

“I definitely have some survivor’s guilt,” she said. The pandemic, she added, “is absolutely horrifying, and I have nothing to worry about, and I’ve been doing really well financially.”

About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 5,733 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from May 4 to May 10. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus two percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.

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