MIAMI (AP) -- 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 was Hilda Mitrani, 51, of North Miami Beach, Fla. The Great Recession and slow economic recovery have devastated her public relations and marketing business. But Mitrani says positive signs are emerging.
Mitrani's long-time clients are spending cautiously, if at all - and she has had to adjust her own lifestyle as a result.
She delays making home repairs. She keeps an eye on the thermostat. And only occasionally, she's able to treat herself to a new pair of shoes.
"It's been a hard recovery," says the single mother of two children.
Mitrani is among many feeling squeezed by a painfully sluggish economic rebound. Unemployment remains high at 7.8 percent. Average pay trails inflation. And the economy is growing too slowly to accelerate hiring.
Mitrani's clients in the nonprofit and health care sectors are reluctant to spend on public relations when they may need that money for supplies or other basics, she says. So Mitrani, who used to employ two part-time workers, now runs the business alone.
But even with lower overhead, she still feels squeezed.
"You're not sure if you're going to get paid this month or next month, or if you're going to have a new client to replace the project that you just finished," she says.
Routine utility bills feel like a burden. And thinking about college tuition payments - her daughter is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis - is "nerve-wracking."
More than anything else, though, she laments the endless string of payments for insurance. "Between the car, the house, the health - so much of the income goes to insurance that it's hard to get ahead," she says.
She rations healthcare for herself to cut down on co-pays. And when her daughter needed medical attention earlier this year, she found herself saying dueling prayers in the hospital.
"Please don't let this cost an arm and a leg. And please let her be OK," Mitrani recalls saying.
Mitrani is resigned to the fact that her retirement won't be as comfortable as her parents'. Compared with her parents' generation, Mitrani believes Americans today are a bit more materialistic and might need to ratchet back expectations a bit. There's evidence this is happening: Consumers have been saving and reducing debts more, and spending less, than before the financial crisis.
Still, Mitrani sees some reason for optimism. The stock market is coming back: The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index is up more than 12 percent this year. And slowly, clients are beginning to inquire about using her services in 2013.
"They're asking for proposals and planning expansions," she says. "They're starting to talk about the future."