Oregon Public Broadcasting

Oregonians are starting to feel the state is headed in the right direction -- even though many are still struggling economically.

That's according to a new poll by OPB and DHM Research. Forty-two percent of respondents say things are on the right track. Just four months ago, that number stood at 32 percent.

As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, the poll also finds that the approval ratings for Oregon's leaders have improved.

For the last 35 years, Albert Smith has lived along the Columbia River on the outskirts of Astoria. He's a contractor who hooks up new homes to the water and sewer system. He says it's been a tough few years but, things are looking up.

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"I think there's an optimism with the economy. I think the economy might be improving somewhat," Smith says.

So, does that mean new homes are springing up again?

"I'm not hooking up more households, but I don't see the tardiness that I was seeing earlier. And I don't see the indebtedness that people have been running in. I think people have just become more cautious and are just more responsible I guess."

Smith's experiences mirror the OPB/DHM poll. While it suggests more optimism than last winter, last winter was dire indeed, so an up-tick doesn't mean the state is booming again.

DHM Research pollster, Sue Midghall, says she hasn't seen people saying they're this optimistic about the direction the state is headed for a year or more. But, because this is an election year, there's a split.

"We see Democrats twice as likely to say things are in the right direction, than we do from Republicans and Independents."

That said, the poll finds politicians doing a little better. Governor John Kitzhaber's approval rating increased from 50 percent to 51 percent.

President Barack Obama jumped from a 46 percent approval rating to 55 percent.

And Oregon's Legislature went from 41 percent to 44 percent.

"That's not bad for the Legislature, let me tell you. We see numbers often times in the mid-20, low-30 percent. So that's not bad and part of that could be partly due to a fairly positive session last year," Midghall says.

Fifty-five percent of respondents were optimistic that the Legislature would be able to make significant progress on key issues in the session that starts Wednesday.

In fact, it seems the tide of increased optimism floated all boats.

Environmental organizations saw their approval ratings soar from 51 percent to 64 percent.

The approval rating for business coalitions also increased -- from 21 percent to 28 percent.

But pollster Sue Midghall wasn't that impressed.

"I wouldn't read too much into those now. It's more about just the level of optimism that we're seeing across the board."

Of course, not all Oregonians are more optimistic.

And even if they are, many still feel that their own personal financial situation isn't likely to improve much.

Charlotte Ihde is 51 and living in Klamath Falls. She's been trying to find work as a homecare worker for a couple of years now.

"Well the economy part is not all that good and unfortunately again I don't see it getting no better. Because people are trying to keep their head above water. They're having to get government assistance because of it. And a lot of them that needs it gets turned away," Ihde says.

Ihde's experience mirrors poll findings in that most people don't feel better off financially than they were two years ago.

"Oregonians are still struggling today. Or at least they perceive their financial situations to be just as gloomy as two years ago. Almost 50 percent say things are about the same for them financially compared to two years ago. But one third say their situation is worse and a large number of them are from the rural areas of the state, outside of the tri-county area," according to Midghall.

So, how does that track with the poll's findings that people think the state is headed the right way?

"Let's leave it to Oregonians to be optimistic. We want things to be better," Midghall says.

Midghall also points out the numbers split along generational lines.

Younger people tend to be a lot more optimistic.

"If you're 35 and older and you're more likely to have kids, a mortgage, college tuition, looking at retirement for yourself, your financial situation, looking into the future seems more dire than someone who's just graduating college or just starting their career," Midghall says.

The poll also asked Oregonians where they would prefer to make cuts in state spending, if necessary.

Seventy-two percent strongly oppose cuts in education, and 47 percent strongly oppose cuts to health and human services.

But 40 percent say they support cuts to prisons and the corrections department.

Albert Smith, the contractor from Astoria, mirrored that finding. He says Oregon spends too much on incarcerating people, and not enough on educating them.

"I certainly don't want to see education cut because I feel like education is imperative to keep people out of prison," Smith says.

The poll also found that on average, respondents believe only about 30 cents on the dollar of state spending benefits their daily lives. Pollster Sue Midghall says, those numbers haven't changed much over time.

"When we ask people in an open setting to just give us an example of where their taxes go to for services, we see a lot of blank faces."

The telephone survey polled 500 people throughout Oregon. It was conducted last week, and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.4 percent.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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