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 1 in 5 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 Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman, 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.
Among those surveyed who were working before the pandemic, about 1 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 1 in 3 were at least somewhat worried about losing them.
Democrats are more pessimistic than Republicans, as they have been throughout President Donald Trump’s term. But confidence has fallen sharply among members of both parties. In February, before the outbreak began to spread widely in the U.S., nearly 80% of Republicans said they expected business conditions over the next year to be good; in May, just 35% said so. Among Democrats, that share fell to 8% from 18%.
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% 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.
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.”