The economy grows, but modestly. The number of jobs leaps forward, but wages lag.

The stock market improves; the dollar weakens; low interest rates keep home mortgages cheap, but household debt has mounted to record levels while savings rates have fallen to historic lows.

China makes. America buys.

Economists in power centers such as New York and Washington battle vigorously over what it all means.

Has an era of sustained growth arrived, or will the situation shift for the worse?

Just as members of the PhD crowd emerge from their charts and models with different interpretations of today's economy, so do Americans emerge from the daily battle to balance the checkbook with different opinions about where things stand and what to expect in the future.

In a series of interviews with people cutting across a range of backgrounds and income levels, Post reporters recently sought a snapshot of individuals' economic concerns. As Congress and the Bush administration prepare agendas for the coming year, these conversations give one glimpse of how some big economic issues are playing out in people's lives.

Tracy Ashford of Yorktown, Va., for example, said it "would be beautiful" if the government came up with more generous programs for financing education. She wants to improve her prospects in an uncertain and competitive job market but is worried about taking on decades' worth of debt.

Randy VandenBerg of Wayland, Mich., feels pretty confident overall but would like a raise. He hasn't had one in years.

President Bush has already indicated he plans major proposals to alter Social Security and overhaul the tax code. But these Americans voiced other concerns.

Health care remains a primary worry: how to pay for rising insurance premiums and cover bigger deductibles; how to find doctors when many are giving up their practices because of high malpractice insurance costs; how to find a job that provides health benefits at a time when many employers are seeking to shed or cut back such obligations.

"I'm terrified about health insurance all the time," said Amy Fried of Cheltenham, Pa. "It's constantly going up for us."

Another issue is savings. The U.S. savings rate plummeted to 0.2 percent of after-tax personal income in September, and 0.4 percent in the third quarter -- the lowest quarterly level recorded. Meanwhile, the ratio of household debt to after-tax income has risen steeply in the past five years to a record high of 1.2, according to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

The people interviewed for these articles generally do put some money aside for the future -- slipping what they can into 401(k) retirement accounts or into college tuition savings plans for their children.

But they are nevertheless worried about their ability to get ahead of the curve financially and stay there. Even a big nest egg can be depleted by unexpected twists in life's path, as Joe Clever of St. Thomas, Pa., learned when he lost his job during the 2001 recession and later became disabled. He figures about $150,000 of his savings was wiped out by the stock market's slide, and the rest is being eaten up by living expenses.

Others worry that the federal government is piling on too much debt, adding to the burden for their children and grandchildren.

-- Howard Schneider

and Nell Henderson

Amy Fried, 46, of Cheltenham, Pa., watches Daniel, 12, do homework. At left are Jesse, 4, and Hannah, 15. Fried says savings are a big priority.Tracy Ashford of Yorktown, Va., teaches special education and "can't complain" -- except about health care.Comfortably retired, Tony and Donna Hill sit at one of their favorite spots, near a small pond on their property near Palestine, Tex.Sue Pitts of Russells Point, Ohio: "There will be change, for the better."Joe Clever of St. Thomas, Pa., is considering a move to Mexico to save on health care. He lost his job in the 2001 recession and later became disabled. Randy VandenBerg, with his wife, Denise, and children Matt Bruinsma, 12, and Andy Bruinsma, 17, in Wayland, Mich., feels good about his job security.