New York Times: In NH, Fiscal Anxiety Despite Relative Economic Health01-09-2012 (PDF Version)
In New Hampshire, Fiscal Anxiety Despite Relative Economic Health
PITTSFIELD, N.H. — Karen Eastman has worked at the same small manufacturing company for 18 years and makes a solid living stitching sleeves for firefighter coats, but the economy is still her foremost concern heading into this state’s presidential primary voting next week.
“For now I’m O.K.,” she said, “but you just don’t know what could happen.”
Although New Hampshire has one of the healthiest economies in the country — with the lowest poverty rate of any state and the fourth-lowest unemployment rate, at 5.2 percent — polls and interviews suggest voters are still deeply nervous about the nation’s fiscal health and the rising cost of groceries, health care and other staples, even if they are working and relatively secure.
The high anxiety — in a state where the jobless rate is much lower than some other early nominating states, including South Carolina (9.9 percent), Florida (10.0 percent) and Nevada (13.0 percent) — portends just how dominant an issue the economy will be in the presidential campaign. It also suggests trouble here for President Obama, who won New Hampshire in 2008 with 54 percent of the vote but may face an uphill battle this year even as the state’s economy shows signs of improving further.
“I hear a lot of people that voted for him the first time around that say they’re really not keen on him this time,” said Margo Weeks, a nurse from Gilford who said she would probably vote for former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts on Tuesday. She voted for Senator John McCain in 2008.
Mr. Romney’s business background and two decades in the private sector are crucial to her support, she said. “I’m worried about the cost of living going up and up; that’s what really bothers me,” she said. “I make decent money, but to put gas in your car, buy your groceries — I mean, it is unbelievable.”
New Hampshire was in a better position than most states to weather the economic crisis because of its diversified economy, its relatively low cost of doing business in an otherwise expensive region, and a cautious approach by its banks to the subprime lending practices that wreaked havoc in other states, said Dennis C. Delay, an economist with the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. The state lost 4.5 percent of its jobs from December 2007 to early 2010, Mr. Delay said, compared with a 6.5 percent loss nationally.
Even so, there were 38,660 people out of work here in November, the latest month for which data is available, compared with some 30,000 before the national economic crisis began in the fall of 2008. Mrs. Eastman’s husband is one of them; his job at a textile mill went to China two years ago, she said.
The state has lost more than 14,000 manufacturing jobs since 2005, its construction industry is still flagging, and hospitals began laying off workers after the state legislature sharply cut Medicaid reimbursements last year.
“Nobody here thinks, ‘Oh well, at least things are better in New Hampshire than they are in New Jersey,’ ” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a conservative research organization in Concord. “Everybody is just worried.”
A poll released last week by CNN and Time magazine found that 47 percent of likely Republican primary voters here said the economy would be “extremely important” to their vote, a far greater portion than those who named foreign affairs (28 percent) or moral issues (13 percent). The poll of 543 likely voters had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Sheila Dickerson, 57, an independent voter, has worked at Globe Manufacturing, a company that has made turnout gear for firefighters here since 1901, for almost 25 years. She said she felt confident she could hang on to her job until retirement but worried what would happen afterward. She is leaning toward voting for Representative Ron Paul of Texas on Tuesday, she said, because “his thing is about straightening out the overspending that government’s doing.”
Of Mr. Obama, she said, “I feel he doesn’t really care about America.” She voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008.
Jim Roche, president of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, said members of his group were “very cautiously optimistic” about an economic turnaround. Still, he added, in a recent survey, 79 percent said they did not plan to add employees in 2012. “There’s just a fair amount of uncertainty that most people recognize,” he said, “both domestically and internationally, that makes them very nervous and frankly reluctant to commit to hiring new people.”
Rob Freese, a senior vice president at Globe, said he had ruled out supporting Mr. Romney because the health care law he signed in Massachusetts had raised costs for businesses, something he did not want to happen in New Hampshire.
“On 380 employees, it’s over $1 million a year that we’re paying in health insurance rates,” Mr. Freese said. “Just this year, we paid for a 30 percent increase in our premiums. It’s all supposed to be getting better, and yet it certainly doesn’t feel that way.”
New Hampshire also has some of the highest property tax rates in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, and they are rising because of the drop in real estate values. Garry Haworth, a retired chemist who was volunteering at a phone bank for Mr. Obama in Manchester on Tuesday, said his property taxes had increased 10 percent last year.
“Most of the people I know who probably could afford to retire don’t dare,” said Mr. Haworth, who voted for Mrs. Clinton in 2008.
Still, Mr. Haworth said he wanted to give Mr. Obama’s policies a chance to work, as did Lucy Natkiel, a small-business owner from Hill who said the Republican candidates were not offering solutions that could get through Congress.
“I think it’s unrealistic to expect it to turn around and return to boom times in a short period of time,” Ms. Natkiel said.
Mary Lynn Edwards, an independent voter who supports Mr. Obama, said it was impossible not to worry about the national economy even if New Hampshire’s was relatively stable.
“I do realize we’re in a better position than most states,” she said, “but it affects every single one of us.”
New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies