LENOX >> As we begin 2016, 72 percent of Americans believe the economy remains in a recession, according to a nonpartisan research group, even though the government declared that the worst slump since the 1930s ended in mid-2009.
Not many people believed that.
But now unemployment is at 5 percent, a healthy figure by contemporary standards, with 2.3 million jobs added in the United States this past year. Total economic growth is steady though not spectacular.
Inflation is around 1 percent while gas and heating fuel prices have tumbled 20 to 30 percent in the past year. Average weekly wages are swinging upward by about 3 percent in Massachusetts, and 4 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Enough with the numbers — how are people feeling about the economy?
'A real disconnect'
There's still too much insecurity out there, especially here in the Berkshires where 300 well-paying Sabic jobs are going elsewhere while many workers are trapped in service sector hourly labor that pays not much above minimum wage. Piling on hours at multiple workplaces is the only solution, especially for people with a family to help support.
The latest national consumer confidence survey by the University of Michigan paints a rosy picture, with optimism approaching its highest level since 2004, thanks to low inflation and widespread discounting that points to a healthy 3 percent gain in personal spending during 2016.
"There's a real disconnect between how people think about their own economic situation, how they think the economy is doing, and how the economy is really doing," says Dan Cox of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington D.C. He told the Boston Globe recently that "it seems kind of crazy" for anyone paying attention to economic measurements to believe the recession is still underway.
But the Globe pointed out that the recovery has been hit and miss, with highly skilled workers in large cities reaping the greatest benefits by landing in the top 10 percent of earners.
Income gap widening
As Alan Clayton-Matthews, economics professor at Northeastern University in Boston, put it: "There are a lot of households doing really well, especially those who are highly educated. And then there are other households who don't have the same level of skills and are working part-time."
While average earnings in Massachusetts are $1,210 a week, tech workers saw a weekly paycheck averaging $2,560 while hotel employees earned $650. In Berkshire County, the average wage in 2014 was $779 a week, second-lowest in the state (Franklin County's average was $721).
The gap between these mostly rural counties (as well as Barnstable on Cape Cod) and prosperous Boston and its suburbs keeps widening, and the trend is similar across the nation.
That's where Bernie Sanders comes in, with his campaign centered on income inequality. His focus is sharp and well-defined, but his social-democratic remedies would never fly in a general election dominated by center-right voters who, if anything, are gravitating toward a more conservative stance.
At the other extreme, Donald Trump relentlessly exploits the anxieties and fears of less-educated, lower-income voters who feel left behind and alienated by our society's growing diversity fueled by immigration, documented or otherwise.
Colbert's old character
Even avowed liberal Stephen Colbert admits "there's a populism to Trump that I found very appealing."
The comedian and late-night host told CBS's "Face the Nation" last Sunday that "the party elders would like him to go away but the people have decided that he is not going to. I may disagree with anything that he's saying and think that his proposals are more than a little shocking. But there is something really hopeful about the fact that 36 percent of the likely voters want him so the people in the machine don't get to say otherwise. That's the one saving grace, I think, of his candidacy."
Colbert even walked back as shortsighted his earlier belief that Trump couldn't win the presidency. "What I do respect is that he knows that it is an emotional appeal, and it might be emotional appeals that I can't respect, but he knows that you have to appeal to the voter. And that's why, I may be wrong — I made a big deal about there's no way he's gonna win."
The former host of "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central described Trump as "my old character with $10 billion. He's completely playing on an emotional level and so beautifully. I mean it's one of the reasons why I just can't do that old character anymore because he's doing it better than I ever could. Because he's willing to drink his own Kool Aid."
However far Trump may get in his quest toward the White House, it's voters who are downtrodden, whose pay has either not kept up or even gone down over the past decade and longer, who will call the shots.
Despite his hateful rants against minorities, women and anyone who dares to question or criticize him, Trump's swaggering, bullying persona and his billions in flaunted wealth draws supporters like moths to a flame.
So far, no candidate of either party has come up with realistic proposals to close the income gap that would pass in Congress, unless the Senate turns Democratic in a Hillary Clinton sweep, as unlikely as that may seem.
Granted, it's too early in the New Year to give in to despair.
But it's hard to glimpse more than a flicker of hope that a year from now, the 65 percent of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track — as measured by the RealClear Politics average of six respected polls — will find cause for optimism.