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Despite continued economic hardship, Americans remain optimistic, says poll

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2011 - Americans are feeling somewhat better about the nation's economy, even though they have grown increasingly negative about their own finances, according to a new national poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Although slightly more than half of the respondents -- 55 percent -- rated the nation's economy as poor, that was down from the 73 percent who felt that way in 2009. However, only 32 percent rated their personal finances as "good" or "excellent," a decline of nine points from a Pew survey last year and down 23 points since the Great Recession started in 2007.

Despite their personal economic concerns, 68 percent of those surveyed said they have achieved or will achieve the American Dream and that their children will grow up to be at least as well off as they are now. On the other hand, less than half -- 47 percent -- now believe their children will have a higher standard of living, compared to 62 percent who felt that way in 2009.

The majority of respondents said that individual attitudes and attributes matter more than outside circumstances in determining financial success.

"While Americans recognize that it is going to be harder and they see challenges facing their kids, there is still a feeling of optimism that it really does matter if you work hard and if you have ambition," said Erin Currier, project manager for the Pew Economic Mobility Project, which researches public perceptions about social mobility. The new poll was an update to a 2009 survey.

Currier said that although optimism has waned somewhat since 2009, she remains impressed by the number of positive responses, despite the nation's long economic struggle.

"It speaks volumes that people not only see through a difficult economic situation but believe they can overcome it," she said. "There's still a lot of that overriding American optimism in place.''

The poll, conducted by the Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies, also found that financial stability meant more to 85 percent of respondents than moving higher up the income ladder.

An overwhelming 83 percent of respondents said they support a government role in promoting upward economic mobility, a sentiment that cut across party lines. More than half -- 58 percent -- believe government could do more.

But 80 percent of respondents felt the government is ineffective at helping poor and middle-class Americans, and 54 percent said that when the government does intervene, it assists the "wrong people."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.