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Looking at a Fitful Future : Uncertainty Marks Outlook on Personal Finances, Nation’s Status, Poll Shows

Times Staff Writer

Orange County residents have lost some of their pessimism but are still more confused and less sanguine about personal finances and the national economy than they were a year ago, according to a new survey by pollsters at UC Irvine.

Data gathered as part of the university’s 1988 Orange County annual survey shows that there has been a large increase in the past year in the number of residents who say they just do not know what to expect over the next 5 years, said Mark Baldassare, poll director.

At the same time, Baldassare said, the UCI pollsters were “surprised to find that the number of residents who now think the nation is headed for bad times” is much lower than in the 1987 survey.

But, he said, that is not because they think things are getting better, just that they probably won’t get worse.

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Despite the high level of uncertainty in the poll, an accompanying county consumer confidence index jumped to 106, up two points from the 104 recorded in the UCI annual survey conducted in September, 1987.

In the university’s first consumer poll, part of the 1986 annual survey, the consumer confidence level was 109. The index reflects the value of answers to five consumer confidence questions in the annual survey, with a level of 100 representing the national norm and numbers above or below that reflecting increasingly optimistic or pessimistic outlooks. The complete UCI survey, which includes questions about housing, politics, transportation and the quality of life, is to be released in December.

Baldassare, a professor of social ecology who also operates his own opinion survey firm, conducted a private consumer attitudes poll for The Times in March, using the same five questions asked in the university survey. That poll was conducted to gauge consumer attitudes 6 months after the stock market collapse of Oct. 19, 1987. It revealed a sharp decline in confidence from the September, 1987, UCI poll and reported a consumer confidence index of 100.

The more positive findings in the 1988 UCI survey, Baldassare said Tuesday, are “related only to diminished pessimism about the national economy, not optimism about the economy or personal finances.”

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The 1988 survey shows that there are fewer people this year than last who think that their personal finances will improve over the next 12 months or who believe that their financial conditions have improved in the past year.

That finding came despite the survey’s report that the median household income in the county hit $44,000 this year, up 4.76% from $42,000 in 1987.

Since 1982, when the first annual survey was conducted by UCI, median household income has increased 52% from $29,000 and the distribution of income has turned completely around.

Only 16% of the county’s households had incomes of $50,000 or more in 1982, while 43% had annual incomes of $25,000 or less. This year, only 16% had incomes below $25,000, while 39% had incomes of $50,000 or more.

The survey polled 1,003 adults during September and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points, with a confidence level of 95%--meaning there is a 95% probability that the answers to the questions are within 3 percentage points of what they would be if every adult resident of the county had been questioned.

HOW RESIDENTS VIEW ECONOMY

Will there be good times or bad times for the U.S. next year?

Sept. 1988 Sept. 1987 Good times 65% 67% Bad times 16 25 Don’t know 19 8

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Will there be good times or bad times for the U.S. in the next five years?

Sept. 1988 Sept. 1987 Good times 43% 46% Bad times 35 45 Don’t know 22 9

Are you better off or worse off now than last year?

Sept. 1988 Sept. 1987 Better off 57% 62% Worse off 15 12 Same 28 26

Do you think you will be better off or worse off next year than now?

Sept. 1988 Sept. 1987 Better off 52% 63% Worse off 6 2 Same 37 33 Don’t know 5 2

Is this a good time or bad time to buy major household items?

Sept. 1988 Sept. 1987 Good time 70% 78% Bad time 14 9 Don’t know 16 13

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Source: 1988 Orange County Annual Survey


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