Most people in South Carolina feel better now about their personal finances and the state's economy than did so 2 1/2 months ago - despite high gas prices, a jobless rate that remains high and a real estate market that was devastated by the worst recession in a lifetime.
"They see through all the bad news," said Mark Vitner, a Charlotte economist for Wells Fargo. "Economic prospects are better in South Carolina than other parts of the country."
The optimism, revealed in a new Winthrop Poll released Tuesday, is fueled by a number of improving economic trends -- major jobs announcements in the state, a slowing of massive layoffs and an easing jobless rate, economists say. And the outlook could further improve as confident consumers increase their spending, Vitner said.
"Layoffs have slowed and people feel better than they did about the economy a year ago," he said. "That's important when it comes to whether you buy big-ticket items like a car."
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Already, 53 percent of those polled in South Carolina think their personal finances are good or excellent, compared with 48 percent of those polled in a similar Winthrop Poll released in early February.
And 53 percent of those polled think their personal financial situation is improving versus 51 percent 21/2 months ago.
Nearly half of those polled -- 48 percent -- think the state's economy is at least fairly good, compared with 38 percent in February. And 59 percent think South Carolina's economy is getting better -- an improvement from the 49 percent who felt that way 21/2 months ago.
The South Carolinians also were more upbeat about the national economy, just less so than the Palmetto State's economy.
About one in three South Carolinians polled thought the nation's economy was at least fairly good, compared to 22 percent in February, and 54 percent thought it was getting better, compared to 46 percent in February.
Those results struck Vitner as "kind of surprising ... given that South Carolina has a higher unemployment rate" than the country.
The state's unemployment rate was 8.9 percent in March, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, compared to the national rate of 8.2 percent. In March, the state's jobless rate -- once among the highest in the nation -- dropped below 9 percent for the first time in more than three years. The state's jobless rate now ranks 42nd in the country but is one of the best in the Southeast, according to Matt Dotson, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But that rate promises to go lower as recent major manufacturing announcements turn into jobs in the coming years. Just in the past year, for example, South Carolina has had commitments from three major tire-makers to expand or build new plants here, creating thousands of jobs.
The jobs issue still was the No. 1 issue facing the state, among those polled. But only 26 percent listed it as the top issue, compared to 37 percent in February.
Still, the state faces challenges on its path to a full economic recovery.
Gas prices have been well above $3 a gallon since the beginning of the year, averaging $3.66 Tuesday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge.
Nearly 68 percent of those answering the poll say they have cut back on spending for other things because of the high gas prices. A full 72 percent said they had cut back on driving. "That has taken a toll, but, even with the run-up in gas prices, we still have people saying their finances have gotten a little better," Vitner said.
Real estate is another area where the state faces challenges.
Home sales increased 6 percent to 10,688 in the first three months of the year, compared to the same period a year ago. But they still are down 30 percent from the peak of 15,269 sales in the first quarter of 2006.
Despite the challenges, South Carolina's economy is improving, said Dotson, the Labor Statistics economist. South Carolinians who have been out of work for a while now are finding jobs and feeling better about their personal finances, he said.
"The entire country is improving, as well, but I would say that South Carolina is doing better than several places," Dotson said.