Economy rebounds nationally but remains stagnant in Richmond, some residents say

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It’s a busy Saturday morning in the parking lot of Foods Co., a discount supermarket in downtown Richmond. Customers compete for the closest car space, families unload children and groceries from metal shopping carts and a young staff member hums to herself while hunting down carts on the other side of the lot.

Willie Roberts, a longtime Richmond resident and former Safeway warehouse worker, parks his car and joins the crowd, shopping for a friend.

Like most Americans, Roberts is regaining confidence in the U.S. economy—a perception that was recently confirmed in national and statewide polling data.

But in Richmond, which experienced a high foreclosure rate and unemployment approaching 20 percent during the Great Recession, recovery, even seven years later, remains slow.

When asked if he thought the local economy had improved since the end of the recession, Roberts quickly answered “no.”

Then, he paused.

“Well, it has improved since then,” he said. “But it’s not as strong as the rest of the Bay Area.”

A new report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University found that Americans have a more positive view of the job market, despite lingering uneasiness.

Since 2009, those “very concerned” about job security declined from nearly 50 percent to just 19 percent this year. However, when asked about the national economy, 6 in 10 respondents said they are concerned, 20 percent are worried and another 7 percent are scared.

“Americans have not returned to the unbridled optimism of the late 1990s, but on several measures…respondents have a more positive assessment than they did during the recession and even two years ago,” Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center, wrote in the report.

In Richmond, like much of California, optimism also comes with caution.

“There’s definitely a disconnect between what Californians are hearing about the economy and what they are experiencing,” Carson Bruno, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank based at Stanford University, said during an email interview.

Each quarter, the Hoover Institution releases the Golden State Poll, a statewide survey that gauges political opinions and economic well-being.

The most recent poll shows that 46 percent of respondents said they were financially the same as a year ago. The remaining respondents were about equally divided between being financially better off and financially worse off.

The poll has been conducted since September 2013. During the three years since then, national confidence rose, but not necessarily in California.

Wages in the state have, on average, been stagnant even while economic growth has brought down unemployment. So even though the economic outlook is more positive, the gains in confidence have been modest. Higher housing costs may also be a factor.

In Richmond, where a city ordinance has pushed the minimum wage up by $2.52 an hour since July 2014, median household income remains nearly $25,000 less than the Contra Costa County median, according to data from the United States Census Bureau.

“Despite the recent economic expansion, incomes haven’t really budged all that much, and people do feel it,” Bruno said.

At a voter registration event in Richmond’s Nicholl Park, Fernando Perdomo, a Marine veteran now studying engineering at San Francisco State University, said he is also uncertain about the economy.

After returning from eight years of service, Perdomo saw a difference in Richmond’s economy but noticed some areas have yet to show much sign of a return to economic health. He cited the empty store buildings at Richmond’s Hilltop Mall.

“It’s interesting because things are changing, the size of the economy is changing,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Perdomo, however, like Roberts, agreed that employment has become easier to find in Richmond—a perception reflected in Contra Costa County’s latest measure of unemployment, which stood at 4.7 percent in August 2016, compared with a high of 10.8 percent during the recession.

“They’ve created a lot of jobs since the end of 2008,” Roberts said, motioning to a “Now Hiring” sign posted outside the Richmond Foods Co. “And a lot of businesses are hiring now, which is good.”

More than 8 in 10 Americans said that job security is “extremely or very important” to them, according to the Rutgers report. That’s why economists agree that the strength of the labor market is the key driver of consumer attitudes.

For the first time, a majority, 56 percent, of employed Californians surveyed in the Golden State Poll expressed confidence in their ability to find a similarly paying new job in the next six months.

In September 2013, when California’s unemployment rate was at 8.5 percent, more than half of the respondents said they were not confident on that measure. Since then, the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.2 percent as of May 2016, and the survey results have switched.

During both periods of recession and—as the United States is experiencing now—expansion, people’s impression of the economy tends to lag behind the actual economic state, Bruno, the Hoover Institution fellow, said.

“It’s human nature to think what has been will continue,” he added.

Ghaliyah Roberts-Palmer, the owner of Gratitude, a small book and gift shop in downtown Richmond’s Market Square Mall, is one of those feeling better about the city’s prospects.

Inside her store, gospel music and an earthy smell of incense fill the air. Shelves are lined with books on mindfulness and the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Roberts-Palmer said Richmond has an improved perception of itself. But does she see the economy faring better than before?

“I think that’s all a matter of perspective,” she said.

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