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Half of Americans now aren't sure their children will have a better life: poll

October 13, 2010 |  5:34 am

Naturally enough, politicians and journalists and political spectators watch an election season's polls for the obvious insights they can offer into the electorate's mood and balloting intentions.

But amid all the fears and anger and uncertainty and disenchantment and disappointment and disillusionment washing across the country in these late election campaign days, there's an ominous little discovery buried within a new Bloomberg News poll this morning. It has nothing to do with the Nov. 2 midterm elections. And everything to do with future ones.

Maybe.

The survey finds that more than half of Americans are either not at all confident or just slightly so that their children will have a better life than they do as parents.

Warranted or not, optimism and confidence in a better future for the next generation has been present throughout decades of modern American history.

It fueled millions of 19th century immigrant dreams. It sustained parents through the Great Depression and the world war that followed. And fueled the optimistic baby boom that ensued after. It drove the postwar generation of simultaneous fulltime workers and parttime students. It tempered the ubiquitous anxiety of the long cold war. And the domestic violence, tumult and dissension of Vietnam. And the later inflation. And on and on.

You just hang in and do your best and your kids will have it better than you do. Guaranteed. Even though you may not live to see all of their better future, you can count on it. And anything smacking of struggle now will surely pay off later for them because that's the kAn American youngsternd of country this is.

But not now. Not, at least for half of those surveyed. Perhaps more.

The president for his own purposes and perhaps beliefs says the worst is over from the recession that officially ended more than a year ago.

But economic growth for the second quarter dipped to 1.7% from 3.7% in the first and 5% late last year. A bad third-quarter number is likely just before election day. And no sign of improvement beyond, despite collossal government stimulus spending.

Unemployment is stuck at 9.6%, the 14th straight month it's been above 9.5%, the longest such period since that Great Depression.

Virtually everyone knows someone or several like themselves, not a spend-thrift but a regular person who's unemployed now through no fault of their own with little prospects and maybe losing their home, perhaps unfairly by amazing screw-ups.

And oblivious federal and state governments talk of budget deficits beyond mortal comprehension, exceeding the digits on anyone's personal calculator. A year of college, long the presumed ticket to a successful life, can now cost what a starter home used to cost with a 30-year mortgage.

To survive, Bloomberg finds, 44% have cut household expenses like cable TV. Almost half have started using coupons, changed their grocery-buying habits; 54% postponed a major purchase. And 85% report some steps to cut spending and save money, pulling in. Not the signs of confidence in the future, for themselves, let alone their offspring.

For short-term gain politicians, who are just as puzzled and frightened for their own future as everyone else, promise progress and victories they know are impossible, the same quick-profit strategy that got Wall Street in such ominous trouble two years ago.

The pols run around rhetorically pointing fingers and calling names, arguing over TV networks, using car crash analogies and professing offense at the drop of certain words. Almost 60% of the country sees the federal government as too intrusive and powerful, up 8 points from just last year.

And, by the way, somebody else should pay a larger share of government costs.

Now, just wait for the president's December deficit commission report perfectly-timed to depress the holidays. Here come more taxes and there goes some part of Social Security for some somebodies.

More than 55% of those under age 65 tell Bloomberg they have no confidence they'll receive the same Social Security or Medicare benefits as today's seniors. So, no wonder they doubt their children's bright future once believed so inevitable.

The Nov. 2 balloting, already underway in early voting across the land, could provide some cartharsis, let off some of the angry steam. Things could improve somewhat over time. Or they could all just continue to fester and blow up in some incumbents' faces someday.

What's different about the 2010 election lead-up is the common use now of the conditional tense. Things could get better.

In the past, better was a self-fulfilling given.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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