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From malls of Florida to Idaho fields, the slump is hard to find

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Trillions of dollars of America's stock wealth have disappeared. Vanished. Poof.

But try to figure where the slump has hurt most and the trail begins to look like, well, a disappearing act.

Clearly, the stock market's woes have crimped consumer spending, hurt investors, and caused thousands to lose their jobs. But compared with previous recessions, when Midwestern factory towns or defense-industry bastions on the East and West coasts were hit hard and visibly, the 21st Century's first recession looks far more diffuse.

Except for Wall Street itself perhaps, specific swaths of the United States have not experienced a huge downturn. At least, not yet. At the same time, few regional engines of growth look ready to power the nation out of its slump.

"When you look at the total impact of changes in stock wealth, it's a big deal," says Chris Varvares of Macroeconomic Advisers here in St. Louis. But stock market losses of $6.9 trillion since 2000 haven't "been strong enough to stop growth in consumer spending."

In fact, a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll shows a small uptick in Americans' economic confidence. The poll's index of economic optimism edged up to 55.6, up from 54.9 in July but still below its peak of 62.9 in March. This month's gain was based on improved expectations for the economy six months from now.

Prospects for a recovery hinge on the notion that consumer spending flows mainly from salaries, not the stock market. And relatively few Americans have lost their jobs compared with previous recessions. Unemployment remains at a relatively modest 5.9 percent.

Moreover, to the degree that the economy has worsened, it has not worsened in demographically predictable ways.

For example, conventional wisdom would suggest America's retirees and those soon to retire should be panicking. After all, from 1989 to 1998, the share of 55- to 64-year-old investing in the stock market jumped by one-fifth – the biggest increase of any age group, according to the Federal Reserve. By 1998, the same group had more of its financial assets tied up in stocks (58 percent) than any other age bracket.

Not all retirees are reeling
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