Consumers here, like those elsewhere, are curbing their use of credit and, in many cases, bolstering their savings in an effort to ride out an era of economic uncertainty.
But in this area -- where disposable income remains high, where government and government-related jobs shield most workers from fluctuations in employment and where recession is usually something that happens to somebody else -- people are optimistic about their economic future.
These are the findings of a Washington Post poll taken in early summer, after credit controls had gone into effect and as the recession was being officially acknowledged. In a random sample, 1,563 residents of the District and its suburbs were interviewed by telephone.
In general, the findings reflect trends that have surfaced nationally -- especially a wave of consumer caution that has reduced retail sales and consumer debt and generated some new savings.
Of those surveyed, 48 percent said they had reduced their use of credit in the previous six months, primarily on their own initiative but in the case of 8 percent because of credit restrictions. Another 36 percent said their use of credit had remained constant, and only 13 percent said they had increased their use of credit.
The most cautious attitudes about credit appeared to be among middle-income families. The biggest voluntary cutbacks in the use of credit were made by families earning between $12,000 and $30,000 a year.
Many families here had also reduced their debts in the same six months. Of those surveyed, 43 percent said their debts were lower than they were about six months before. Another 29 percent said their debt burden had stayed about the same size, but 27 percent said their debts were higher. Unmarried workers appeared more willing to run up new bills than married workers or people who were jobless.
Of those interviewed, more than a third confessed to some difficulties in meeting monthly expenses, with 6 percent saying that it was very difficult and 3 percent saying that sometimes they don't make it. Now surprisingly, the difficulties were less pronounced for the more affluent and most pronounced for families who earned less than $12,000.
The poll also indicated that some families are increasing savings. Only 28 percent said their savings had been drawn down to lower levels than six months before, while 35 persent said they had increased their savings and another 35 percent said they were maintaining about the same rate of savings.
Signs of the impact of inflation on people's lives included that 28 percent of those who said they had not bought a car in the past year said they couldn't afford one. Of the 78 percent who said they had not bought a house or a condominium apartment in the past two years, nearly half said they couldn't afford that purchase. Cost also altered families' vacation plans, with almost half of the 41 percent who planned no vacation this summer ascribing that decision to cost.
Food and clothing are taking a bigger chunk out of many people's earnings than before, the poll indicated. Food was the biggest increased expense, with slightly more than two out of three of those surveyed noting that they spend a greater portion of their income on food than two or three years ago. Only 12 percent said they have reduced expenditures for food, and 20 percent said their expenditures were about the same.
Expenditures for clothing, a more discretionary item, had risen less. Of those responding, 38 percent said they were spending a greater portion of their income on clothing, 36 percent said they were spending about the same amount as in the past, and 25 percent said they had reduced expenditures.
Notwithstanding these signs of reaction to a troubled economy, area residents generally responded with optimism about the economic future. A majority, 54 percent, said they expect to be financially better off in a year. Only 16 percent thought they would be worse off, and 22 percent said they expected little change.
Bolstered savings and reduced debt seemed to go hand in hand with optimism about future financial welfare. Being single and young also appeared to produce more optimism than being married and older. Women tended to be more pesimistic than men, and nonwhites tended to be more optimistic than whites.
Not surprisingly, the more money respondents made the more optimistic they were, as well. But the optimism generally was spread among all types of families with all types of incomes. Only at incomes of less than $8,000 did a majority not expect to be better off -- but, even so, only 19 1/2 percent expected to be worse off, with a majority expecting to at least hold their ground.