RANDY DREHER USES a combine to harvest one of his corn fields north of Audubon, Iowa. In the high-risk, high-reward world of farming, Dreher is doing well but still worries.

RANDY DREHER USES a combine to harvest one of his corn fields north of Audubon, Iowa. In the high-risk, high-reward world of farming, Dreher is doing well but still worries.

It’s a staple of every presidential election, a single question that puts the incumbent’s record on trial and asks voters to be the jurors.

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan asked in 1980 at the end of a televised debate. The answer was his landslide win. Since then, the question has become a cudgel for political challengers, a survey question for pollsters and a barometer for the mood of the country.

FOUR YEARS AGO, DAN MANJACK was a Florida building contractor struggling to stay afloat in a state drowning in foreclosures. He traded his 1,800-square-foot condo for a 40-foot motor home and 16-hour work days in North Dakota.

FOUR YEARS AGO, DAN MANJACK was a Florida building contractor struggling to stay afloat in a state drowning in foreclosures. He traded his 1,800-square-foot condo for a 40-foot motor home and 16-hour work days in North Dakota.

So what are those feelings on the eve of the election?

A new Washington Post- ABC News poll reported 22 percent of likely voters say they’re better off financially than when Obama became president, a third say they’re worse and nearly half report being in the same shape.

Those are the broad strokes; it’s the singular stories, though, that reveal hope and confidence, frustration and insecurity. Here are a few from around the nation:

THE BUILDER

Four years ago, Dan Manjack was scraping by, a Florida building contractor struggling to stay afloat in a state drowning in foreclosures.

“It’s probably the first time in my life that I felt fear,” says Manjack, a 44-year-old Army veteran. “I had four kids to support. I had an ex-wife (they were divorcing at the time) to support…. My life savings were gone. My checking was gone. They were dire times.”

He eked out a living by taking small construction jobs and dabbling in marketing ventures; he even considered moving to Dubai. “I really didn’t know where to go, to be honest with you.”

He headed north. Destination: Williston, N.D., ground zero in an enormous oil boom.

A friend had put him in touch with an investor who wanted him to come there to build temporary housing for workers.

The investor portrayed Williston as modern-day gold rush country, So Manjack made the 1,500-mile trek. Before the camp was even finished, it was sold and he realized he was in a land of limitless opportunity.

There’s no doubt where he stands on that “better off ” question.

“I think you can get rich up here,” he says, “but it takes sacrifice.”

Manjack traded his 1,800- square-foot Florida condo for a 40-foot motor home and 16- hour work days, far from his kids in Texas. But he has no regrets. Friends who told him he was crazy to go now call, looking for jobs.

He’s building a downtown office and condo and already has started a construction company.

Manjack says he has “the feeling of American pride, that you’re doing your part in getting the U.S. off foreign oil. It’s exciting to live here.”

“Four years ago, I didn’t have any direction,” he says. “I feel like I found out where I want to be. … I don’t know how I got to North Dakota. But I’m really glad I did.”

THE FACTORY WORKER

Jody Baugh escaped the ranks of the unemployed, but nothing feels secure.

Baugh lost his welding job in fall 2008 when his recreational vehicle factory in Wakarusa, Ind., closed. He was unemployed for almost a year before he found work making boats, but at a fraction of his former $19.50 hourly salary.

“I had to take an $11-anhour job just to feed my family,” Baugh says. But that company closed, too.

Along the way, he says, he found himself becoming one of the working poor.

Baugh now makes modular homes in Indiana. He likes his job and company, but worries about gas prices and health care costs.

“I feel like there’s no direction,” he says. “You don’t have the promise of a job the next day. A few years ago, gas was cheap, food was cheaper. I knew I had a job, at least I thought I had a job. I had a safety net. Now I have no savings. You don’t know what’s going to happen next week.”

Baugh feels he’s gone backward. “When I was 19, I used to bring home $320 a week,” he says. “Now I’m 46 and I bring home $390 to $420. Where’s the progress?”

The financial strain, Baugh says, also took a personal toll, contributing to his divorce from his wife of 21 years; he says their joint annual income plummeted from $103,000 to $36,000. “A lot of people get scared when you’re used to a certain way of life and it changes overnight,” he says.

Baugh isn’t sure he’ll vote. “I can’t believe anybody anymore,” he says.

“I really did have hope when (Obama) got in that things would be good,” he says. “Now the only thing I see is the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I was born into the middle class and now I’m on the other side.”

THE FARMER

In the high-risk, highreward world of farming, Randy Dreher doesn’t measure his finances in four-year election cycles.

His fortunes revolve around crop prices, exports, and nature.

Despite a blistering drought this year, the fifthgeneration Iowa farmer was left pretty much unscathed, high crop prices offsetting a reduced crop.

Dreher, who grows corn and beans and raises pigs and cows on the same plot of land in west-central Iowa where his great-great grandfather settled more than 100 years ago, said agriculture is enjoying its best days since he was born in 1980.

“If you can’t make it in farming now, you’ll never make it in farming,” he says.

And yet, he sees clouds in the larger economic picture.

“I think about the debt and Social Security and Medicare. Where all those dollars are going to come from is very alarming to me.” Dreher says. “You prepare for the worst, but you can only do so much.”

THE JOB HUNTER

For Linda Speaks, life in 2008 and now is a study in contrasts. Four years ago, she had a steady job, a middleclass income and was saving for retirement.

Today, she’s in the middle of a long, frustrating search for work, her savings are gone and her unemployment benefits will soon expire.

When the tobacco company where she was an administrative assistant asked for retirement volunteers in late 2009, she decided to leave. Hundreds of resumes later, her search continues.

“I don’t feel of worth to anyone,” but at 57, Speaks wants to keep working. “I don’t care to sit on the porch and rock my years away,” she says.

Speaks considered starting a small business in the Winston Salem, N.C., area, and took some community college courses, but with companies doing more with less, she says, “That leaves me on the outside. I can’t get my foot in the door anywhere.”

Meanwhile, she and her husband, a mechanic, have tightened up their already frugal ways. No vacations, no big purchases — the 12-yearold car they want to replace will have to do for now.

They’ve also assumed a new financial burden: Speaks’ husband was recently diagnosed with cancer.

“We’ve never, ever lived beyond our means,” she says, “but now we don’t have the luxury of savings. In four years we’ve not added to anything, we’ve not improved anything.”


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