By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Even with temporary fixes to fund the federal government and to allow the debt ceiling to increase, the intense debate has tainted impressions of the economy for some shoppers in Northeast Mississippi.
With the most recent consumer confidence indicators from September showing a slight drop in shoppers’ positive impression of the economy and declining expectations, recent squabbling and debate in Congress related to the federal budget seem to have exacerbated the pessimism in Tupelo, the economic hub for Northeast Mississippi.
Shoppers at The Mall at Barnes Crossing last week had various reasons to be there, with a mix of taste in music, clothing, electronics and books. A half-dozen shoppers informally surveyed about the economy said they had little reason to believe their negative outlook will improve anytime soon. They also agreed that continued battles in Washington could be to blame for their attitudes.
Waiting in line to get coffee, South Pontotoc High School algebra and calculus teacher Vickie Downs, 56, said she had nothing good to say about the economy right now. With the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives approving an 11th-hour deal to avoid a default by the federal government, the uncertainty worries Downs, who has taught school for nearly 31 years.
While not immediately looking at retiring, Downs said the thought has crossed her mind. Now she worries if political unrest will lead to shakier economic times and negatively impact Mississippi’s PublicEmployees Retirement System.
“I’m at the point of retiring in the next few years,” said Downs, a Tupelo resident. “And I’m scared there might not be anything there.”
Rodney Stidham, 45, and his wife drove from Hamilton, Ala., for mid-week shopping in Tupelo. Waiting on his wife to find deals, Stidham said he’s likely not going to make any larger purchases in the coming months, mentioning conflict related to the federal government.
“I feel like the economy is on the downside,” he said. “The government has got to create an environment where everything works together, but we’re not doing that.”
Hard to plan ahead
Economist Kevin Rogers, professor and associate dean at Mississippi State University’s College of Business, said the dampening effect on consumers’ outlook related to uncertainty with the federal budget and debt ceiling discussions isn’t surprising. He said the big story with the economy now is action in the federal government.
Even with the agreements last week in Washington, the short-term fix brings potential for another government showdown just three months from now.
“It’s hard for people to plan when they don’t know what’s going to happen with policy, taxes and interest rates,” Rogers said. “Whether you’re a business owner or consumer, there’s always a worry that things could get worse. People prefer to know what the system will look like.”
The overall consumer confidence index dropping slightly in September to 79.7 from 81.8 in August, while consumer appraisal of present-day business conditions also showed shifts toward less enthusiasm and more concern. Consumer expectations also declined from information provided from the Conference Board, an independent organization that produces economic research and data.
Recent economic indicators show the nation has improved from the recession of 2007-2009. In Northeast Mississippi, the latest unemployment rate for the region last month was 9.4 percent, the second-lowest rate for the year. Retail sales in Lee County last year again topped $1.6 billion. The housing market has improved and commercial building has increased.
But not everyone has experienced an improvement.
Tremont resident Kay Lann, 54, was unemployed when she stopped looking for another job, instead serving as a caretaker for her sick mother-in-law.
Lann said her 30-year-old son who lives in Lexington, Tenn., is also unable to find work, limiting his ability to support his wife and 5-year-old son.
Lann’s personal situation helps paint, for her, a darker picture of the economy.
“I think it’s in bad shape and isn’t going to get better anytime soon,” she said. “I worry that people won’t be able to find jobs and pay their bills.”
In the Barnes & Noble Booksellers store in the mall, Eric Newberry, 39, looked over his resume while his wife, Michelle, and their 10-year-old son, Elias, browsed books. Newberry works as a department manager at Walmart on North Gloster Street, but plans to resume part-time work as a minister. He said concerns about the economy could be impacted by debt ceiling discussions and recent introduction of insurance exchanges as part of the national health care law.
“Our country has been broke for so long,” he said. “Personally, I’ve seen much better times.”
The next report of consumer confidence will be released on Oct. 29.