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The Real Reasons Americans Think the Economy Is So Bad

In the September 1st issue of Fortune, this article ran alongside “It Only Seems Like the Economy Is a Disaster,” about why the economy isn’t as bad as most people think it is.

If the economy is recovering, most Americans have missed the memo. Pessimism about the state of the country has already shaped the election season, helping to power insurgencies on the left and right. Between them, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump earned roughly 25 million primary votes, less than a tenth of the population. But the animus that allowed both outsiders to shatter expectations for their candidacies—the sense that elites are gobbling up the economy’s gains and locking everyone else out—runs deeper.

What’s odd is that even as Americans remain overwhelmingly anxious about the nation’s trajectory, they see their own personal lot improving. Three in four adults believe it is harder to get ahead today than it was for previous generations, and a mere 7% say it’s easier, according to the Allstate/Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor survey in July. But by a 30-point margin, more Americans think their own financial situation will improve over the next year than deteriorate. Similarly, two-thirds of respondents to a June poll by the center-left think tank Third Way said the country is divided into “haves” and “have-nots,” but by nearly the same margin they classified themselves among the “haves.” The poll found huge support for the idea that our economic system is biased, with 78% agreeing that “there are bailouts for the top and handouts for the bottom but nothing for those in the middle.”

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What’s going on here? Breaking the sentiments down by race may help explain it. Hispanics lag behind the broader population in household income and net worth and suffer higher poverty rates. Yet by a 20-point margin they are more confident than the general public that their family’s financial situation will improve in a year, a recent Pew Research Center poll found. That dynamic is even more pronounced for African-Americans. “Black Americans are doing the worst economically, but they’re the most positive about the economy and public institutions,” says Steve Glickman, a former White House economic adviser and cofounder of the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan think tank. “They feel that their economic circumstances are improving, while white Americans believe their trend lines are moving in the opposite direction.”

Another explanation of Americans’ relentlessly dour mood: For many of the pessimists, years of bad news have curdled their longer-term outlook—even if the bad news has been mostly about other people. They now see a grimmer life for their kids than their own, marking what Republican pollster David Winston calls “a real structural shift in the electorate.” These voters tend to look at sunny economic projections “with a much more critical eye,” Winston says. Before they start to feel comfortable again, he says, “they’re going to need to see a much more robust sense of things improving.”

Also read: “It Only Seems Like the Economy Is a Disaster.”

A version of this article appears in the September 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “How We Feel About the Economy… How It’s Really Doing.”