The recession that started in March is gradually intruding on people's lives, forcing them to cut back in ways that contribute to the downturn.
Young people just out of college find themselves unable to land jobs in their chosen careers or to afford rent for their first homes. Retirees try to get by on suddenly shrunken incomes. Immigrants send less money to relatives back home or cut their own expenses. And a growing number of middle-income people, having lost jobs or bonuses or raises, squeeze luxury out of their lives.
But if the number of Americans untouched by recession is diminishing, optimism is not. The expectation of most forecasters — that the economy will be rising by June — is shared by many Americans who see their new hardship as temporary and therefore bearable.
"People see this recession as a temporary adjustment after a long expansion that could not go on forever," said Tom W. Smith, a director at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. "The message we get is that people are hurting; they are finally beginning to experience the recession in their daily lives. But they view the economy as fundamentally sound."
Only a minority of the population, roughly 17 percent, feel directly affected by the recession, said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of Louis Harris & Associates, the polling firm. But that is up from 10 percent last summer and is growing rapidly, deepening the downturn as people are drawn in and spend less.
New college graduates are especially touched, people like Anne Turner Gunnison of Sacramento, Calif., who is unable to find a job in her chosen field. Andrew Mickish and Karen Griffin, a couple in their early 30s, had a solid foothold in the dot-com world in Pittsburgh, plummeted into unemployment, then made it only part way back and shifted to a simpler lifestyle. Daniel Mejia, an immigrant in Massachusetts who fears that his job as a van driver is about to vanish, has stopped sending money to his children in El Salvador.
The Darrell Henkenius family of rural Iowa, earning well but feeling recession all around, is trimming its already modest expenses. And Philip Colombo of Portland, Ore., a recent retiree hoping to move smoothly into a new job, is finding the road rather bumpy.
Through most of last fall, attention focused more on the terrorist attacks and the national response than on the economy. But now opinion polls show that the recession is surging back into public focus, along with an unexpected optimism.
"There is this tremendous sense of resiliency and resourcefulness," Smith said. "We will get the terrorists and we will work our way through the recession."
Colombo, 59, retired on July 7, unaware that the downturn he read about in his newspaper applied to him, too, and would soon upend his plans. "I did not sense a recession at all here in Portland until I looked for a job and started getting negative letters," Colombo said.
Once the recovery comes, Colombo said, he will find a job. And the recovery will come. This 10th recession since World War II is not yet, for the optimistic Colombo family, life-changing.