Nearly half of Minnesotans questioned say it's their top issue in the presidential election.
Jake Slitka sees the slow economy, the weak job market and the preponderance of low-paying jobs, and it no longer shocks him. Instead, he hops into a beat-up Ford Taurus and drives to one of his three jobs.
Slitka, of Maplewood, has resigned himself to what he sees as the new reality of the American economy: People might have to work more than one job, drive an old vehicle, take positions that don't pay much and scrape together a living.
"There's nothing wrong with working two or three jobs," Slitka, 53, said. "I'd like to make $500,000 a year, but I don't live my life worrying about what I can and can't do."
The prolonged lethargy of the American economy is sinking in for Minnesotans like Slitka, according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll. Just over half the respondents don't expect their personal financial situation to change significantly in the next year, and only one in four expects it to get better.
Almost half of likely voters -- 48 percent -- say they will vote for the presidential candidate they believe can fix the economy, making it by far their biggest concern in the election, according to the poll of 800 likely voters conducted last week. The poll's margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
In general, Minnesota's economy has fared better than the rest of the nation's. The state's unemployment rate is under 6 percent, the economy has recovered more than half the jobs lost in the recession and most Minnesotans don't think the economy is getting worse. Overall, the poll showed that only 19 percent of likely voters believe their financial situation will deteriorate in the next 12 months.
Yet recent economic data has provided ample reason for caution. Minnesota unemployment ticked upward in August, the state lost jobs and more than a third of available positions paid $10 per hour or less. U.S. unemployment, which hasn't fallen below 8 percent since early 2009, now appears to be hovering at 8.2 percent.
Martha Paas, who teaches economics at Carleton College in Northfield, said the level of optimism among the public is important, because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"One of the things that makes people spend money is expectations," Paas said. "If people think the economy is picking up and they're less likely to lose their jobs, then they're more willing to buy particularly durable goods, which is the thing that provides employment."
And when people don't feel the economy picking up, they hold onto their money. Businesses don't expand. People don't buy new cars or season tickets to sports events. Economic growth remains slow and uneven.
"It can become a little bit of a vicious circle," said Anthony Becker, who teaches economics at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Paula Rude, 62, of Robbinsdale, says she's more pessimistic about the economy than she has been before any other election. She works two part-time jobs and collects Social Security, but she's covered the spectrum in her lifetime. She's had well-paying jobs and said she participated fully in what she thinks of as the "work hard, play hard" years from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s.
She credits the productivity of baby boomers in their prime working years for that prosperity, but she thinks the country has entered a new era.
"I don't know that we'll ever see a resurgence of money flow like that again," she said. "I just think that the public, in general, can't expect that things are going to be handed to them."
A different era?
Some analysts say the low unemployment of the 1990s and 2000s was a historical anomaly, driven by the housing bubble and matched only by war-time jobless rates in the early 1950s and late 1960s. Minnesota unemployment fell to 2.5 percent in 1998 and as low as 3.9 percent in the runup to the financial crisis. Now, the jobless rate in Minnesota is 5.9 percent.
Historically, that's not terrible, and yet even in Minnesota, the economy is foremost in voters' minds.
Becker, the St. Olaf professor, said people are starting to hit the "psychological reset" button. The past two decades were a new, more prosperous era, and that era has given way to another one.
"When I was an undergraduate, something like 6 or 7 percent unemployment was considered pretty close to normal," said Becker, who has been teaching at St. Olaf since 1987. "I think people are adjusting away from the last new normal to maybe a new new normal."
Respondents ages 35 to 49 were the most pessimistic as a group, with some 23 percent saying their personal financial situation will worsen in the coming year. Men were more pessimistic than women, with 26 percent of male respondents saying their personal finances will deteriorate, compared with 13 percent of female respondents.
Poll respondents between the ages of 50 and 64 were more upbeat than their younger counterparts. Only 16 percent of respondents in that age group said their financial lot would worsen over the next year.
Jon Nicholson, 61, of Dakota, Minn., believes the American economy will recover, just more gradually than anyone would like. He lost his job as a rubber chemist at La Crosse Footwear when the factory closed 10 years ago, then immediately became a consultant and started traveling. He goes to Asia regularly and says he's "up to my neck in the international economy."
"Economic cycles happen not necessarily at the speed that the government would want them to happen, so I think it's going to continue to come back on its own, one way or the other," Nicholson said.
Slitka, who works three part-time jobs, is firmly in the camp that believes the country has entered a leaner era. He believes the recovery will be slow, sporadic and indefinite, and he's dealing with it. He vends at Twins and Vikings games, works as a school liaison, and helps with his father-in-law's business.
Working a lot of weekends, he has paid off his home, and at the age of 53 acquired a weary -- but good-natured -- perspective on the future. "I don't think it'll get any better," he said. "Everybody's going to have to take a little bit of a hit."
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz