SEBRING - Consumer confidence. Sondra Riley can sum it up in two figures: $15 and $9.
The first is how much she used to make in Indiana. The second is current hourly wage in Sebring.
"I've been here about three months," said Riley, a youth care specialist.
The University of Florida's consumer confidence survey was unchanged in December, pegging the way people feel about the economy.
"It is now apparent that the sharp drop in confidence in October was largely a response to the U.S. government shutdown, and perhaps more importantly, the threat of the U.S. defaulting on its debt," said Chris McCarty, director of UF's Survey Research Center in the Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
According to the December survey, the respondents' overall view is that they are 10 percentage points better off financially than a year ago, when consumer confidence was 67. Confidence in the nation's economy over the coming year dropped 2 points to 74, while trust in its performance over the next five years was unchanged, at 76. Finally, respondents' consensus over whether now is a good time to buy a big-ticket item such as a washing machine fell 4 points, to 88.
Improving economic conditions may be contributing to Florida's sustained consumer confidence, McCarty said. "As the recovery takes hold, we expect the unemployment rate to increase somewhat as some of these discouraged workers start looking for jobs again."
Interviewed over a plate of Chinese noodles in the Lakeshore Mall food court, Jon Konzelman had a dim view of the U.S. economy. "We're still in debt, $16 trillion. I'm not sure how much the government is controlling the recovery or the private is controlling the recovery." He was here from Scranton, Pa., to visit in-laws.
The economy is adding jobs. Florida's unemployment rate declined again in November, down .3 percent to 6.4 percent, which is lower than the U.S. rate of 7 percent. However, an estimated 2,000 workers left the labor force permanently or stopped looking for work, which made the Florida unemployment figure look better than it is, McCarty said.
"Is the government putting those numbers out?" Riley asked. "That's it right there. I don't trust the government."
The housing market is also improving with the median price of a single-family home in Florida increasing $900 from October to November to $169,900 - the first monthly increase since July. Prices are up 13.3 percent from the previous year. However, residential values may not rise as much in 2014.
In 2006, the height of Highlands County's building boom, 1,259 single and multi-family homes were constructed, generating $236 million.
In 2012, those numbers fell to 30 homes and $34 million.
Fred Horman shook his head at the precipitous plunge, but sees hope. He lives in a manufactured housing community between Sebring and Lake Placid. "They're moving in new units every day."
How much longer will that last? Interest rates are rising, the FHA plans to lower the cap for home loans from $729,750 to $625,500, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will raise guarantee fees to lenders, which will be passed on to borrowers.
"All of this adds up to additional expenses for buyers," McCarty said. "While housing price gains thus far are solid and not likely to decline, they will not be the same driver of the recovery as they have been."
Holiday spending is weaker than last year.
"This is a combination of deep discounting by retailers and a very short holiday season compared to last year due to the lateness of Thanksgiving," McCarty said. "Retailers' attempts to capture an extra day by opening on Thanksgiving may have helped, but will not fully counteract the short season."
At the same time, though, Horman suggested, the buying power of his dollars are far less than they were a decade ago.
USInflationCalculator.com agrees: the Consumer Price Index rose from 184 to 233, a 19 percent difference.
Riley didn't spend as much on gifts this year, Konzelman spent about the same, and Horman had to help a family member so holiday spending at his house was a whole lot less.
"But Americans are going to spend, no matter what," Konzelman reasoned.
McCarty expects consumers to be affected by the rhetoric from Washington surrounding the debt ceiling debate. While there is an agreement to fund the government through 2015, there is not a deal yet to extend the debt ceiling beyond Feb. 7.
Of the three, only Konzelman felt he got ahead last year, and that's because he was promoted from teacher to principal. He and fellow educators got cost of living and merit increases. A retired postmaster, Horman's insurance went up $10 per year, but there was no corresponding raise in his civil service pension. "This is the first year we didn't get an increase."
Find details of UF's December survey at http://www.bebr.ufl.edu/cci