On the eve of the 2012 elections, The Associated Press interviewed dozens of Americans to try to gauge the economic mood of the nation. People were asked about jobs, housing, gas prices, retirement and other issues. Among them were a Chicago couple: Adrienne Cragnotti, 46, and Mike Eiler, 41. She's a self-employed photographer; he's an unemployed former copy editor. Despite career setbacks and a declining living standard, Cragnotti and Eiler remain optimistic.
Job market frustrations are the one gray cloud hanging over Cragnotti and Eiler's adventuresome life together.
The couple dealt with Eiler's layoff from a Colorado Springs newspaper last December by indulging in diversions they lacked time for when they were working.
They fixed up and sold their century-old house in Colorado, went camping around the West in a vintage travel trailer and visited friends.
Then in July, they moved to Chicago, a city they'd always wanted to live in. Ditching most belongings, they rented a 350-square-foot studio apartment in the city's upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood and moved in with their two cats.
But the tightening squeeze of long-term unemployment threatens their future, as it does for many other Americans. More than 5 million people have been out of work for six months or more, up from 2.7 million when President Barack Obama took office.
Eiler, who worked as a copy editor, has been job-hunting unsuccessfully for nearly a year. He has found few suitable job openings in journalism or related fields -- and heavier competition than he expected.
Cragnotti brings home only limited pay from her photography and modest rental income from a house she owns in Los Angeles. Demand for the glamour photography she specializes in has dropped. So she is branching out to different kinds of photography in search of more income.
After Eiler's unemployment checks stop coming in December, they'll need to dip into savings to get by.
That could prompt more cutbacks to their lifestyle. Eiler remains optimistic. But he figures their standard of living "will have to be worse for a little while before it gets better."
"As bad as it might seem, the self-pity of not having a job, we're hardly eating out of a Dumpster," he says. "We're pretty fortunate." But, he adds: "It's more difficult than I thought it would be to find a new job.
The unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent in September, the first time it has dipped below 8 percent in 43 months. And that's where it is forecast to be on Election Day, just four days after the government releases the October jobs report.
Cragnotti's glad the U.S. economy and job outlook seem to be slowly picking up. But she's eager to see it translate to more than just numbers in the news.
"Our personal economy is not that great," she says.