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Are you better off now?
Job growth has been sluggish and debt is up, but home values are rising; incomes growing but slowly.
November 1, 2004: 5:53 PM EST
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - It's the question Ronald Reagan used to win the presidency in 1980: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

The question, which Reagan asked 24 years ago in his debate with then-incumbent Jimmy Carter, was the key moment in that campaign's closing days. At a time of high interest rates and high unemployment, many voters answered the question with a resounding no.

With this year's race a dead heat a day before most voters head to the polls, the answer to the question could determine the next president. But the answer doesn't appear quite as clear as it seemed in 1980.

A slew of numbers are offered up by both campaigns. Here are some of the key numbers that might help voters find an answer.


A report released Monday shows that take-home pay is up slightly compared to four years ago. Disposable personal income for Americans, after taxes, was $29,251 in the third quarter, up 5.6 percent from the third quarter of 2000, adjusted for inflation.

Much of that gain is due to the tax cuts passed by the Bush administration -- total tax payments by individuals fell 16 percent from four years ago -- but the 5.6 percent disposable income gain over four years is not that strong.

When Reagan asked his question of Carter, U.S. wage earners had seen an average gain of 6.6 percent, even adjusted for the much higher inflation at that time. But it is stronger than the 3.4 percent growth during the four years preceding the unsuccessful 1992 re-election bid of the president's father, President George H.W. Bush.

Net worth

Federal Reserve statistics show that household net worth is clearly up from four years ago. The driver: the strong housing market and home values.

Fed statistics show that household net worth is up about 9.3 percent to $45.9 trillion nationwide, a gain of about $3.9 trillion.

But more than half the increase in net worth, 56 percent, is largely from rising home prices, which jumped 40 percent. By comparison, the value of more liquid assets, such as bank deposits, stocks, bonds and mutual funds held by individuals, fell about 1 percent overall, due to the 21 percent drop in stocks during the period.

In addition, total household debt jumped about 38 percent to $9.7 trillion, driven mainly by a big increase in mortgage debt, as consumers refinanced and cashed out some equity. But the Fed also shows relatively little change in the debt payments as a percentage of personal income, thanks to lower interest rates.


The labor market has received the greatest attention of any economic issue on the campaign trail.

President Bush frequently repeats that today's unemployment rate of 5.4 percent is good by historical standards and that employers have added jobs over the last 12 months. Democratic challenger John Kerry is always quick to point out that this is the first administration since that of President Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression to lose jobs during the first four years in office.

Economic Indicators
Personal Debt

Both are right, using the Labor Department's monthly employment report. Employers outside the farm sector have added 1.7 million jobs compared to September 2003, according to the most recent reports. But there are also about 585,000 fewer jobs now than when President Bush took office in January 2001. And after three strong months of job growth in the spring, the most recent reports have trailed economists' forecasts.

The president is clearly hurt by any comparisons to the white-hot employment market of 2000. In

April 2000, the unemployment rate had fallen to a three-decade low of 3.8 percent, and it stood at only 3.9 percent in October of that year, as voters went to the polls.  Top of page

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