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Are you better off now? For locals, it’s a mixed bag

Kathyrn Woods of Chelsea said things feel largely the same.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

Kathyrn Woods of Chelsea said things feel largely the same.

It is the question that prompted vitriol from both ends of the political spectrum after the Republican National Convention: Are you better off now than four years ago?

Around the state, among those far removed from the day-to-day political jockeying of the presidential campaign, responses were equivocal. Not really. Maybe. Kind of ish.

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It has been four years of struggle for Alison Lozano, 30, who was laid off from her job at a health insurance company. It took three years to find steady employment at a mental health facility and as a substitute teacher. Things are better now, she says, but it’s impossible to feel comfortable.

“I’m holding onto my job for dear life, and I just can’t afford another setback,” said Lozano, who lives with her son in Dorchester. “I’m trying to turn this into something that was supposed to be the American dream, but I’m teeth to the concrete at this point.”

Kathryn Woods of Chelsea says she’s also hanging on. She has managed to keep her two jobs — as a tour guide for the Freedom Trail Foundation and as a hot dog vendor at Fenway Park — since before the last presidential election. For Woods, things feel largely the same.

“It’s sort of like riding a bike up a hill,” Woods said. “You just put your face down and keep pushing your feet on the pedal. If you just do, do, do, maybe you’ll get someplace.”

Thom Baker said the economy is not the only measuring stick.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Thom Baker said the economy is not the only measuring stick.

Things are definitely not better for George Garabedian, 49, of Melrose: He was laid off four years ago from his job painting homes in Swampscott, and a few weeks ago, he was again laid off from his job at a New York-style deli. It seems that overall, things are getting better, he said — more of his friends and family have been landing steady employment — but not for him.

“It’s a struggle. Nobody wants to pay anymore,” Garabedian said. “It’s not like it used to be. It’s very cutthroat.”

Others, meanwhile, have seen a significant improvement in their lot over the last few years. For Chris Leitao, senior sales representative at Dedham Automall, business has doubled in the past 18 months.

“Where I’m sitting ... business is very, very good right now,” Leitao said. “It’s the best I’ve seen in the past three years.”

That isn’t just car-salesman spin. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, the US auto industry sold 1.1 million vehicles in July, an 8.9 percent increase from July 2011.

Business is also looking up for Phyllis Tougas, 57, one of the owners of Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, where customers arrive with baskets to pick apples and taste locally grown fare.

Tougas attributed modest but steady improvements in profits to the recent rise of social movements focusing on sustainable agriculture and buying local produce.

Still, she said, while her business has been improving, she realizes the country’s economy continues to flounder. For her business, fewer jobs has meant a deeper hiring pool.

“It’s been easier to find good staff when they don’t have as many options,” she said. “I feel bad, because a lot of the people who are working here perhaps would be better off working at a permanent full-time job.”

Rich Bonanno, owner of the Pleasant Valley Gardens farm in Methuen and president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, said that, overall, the last four years have been “a mixed bag” for farmers. The federal government has taken bigger steps to support locally grown agriculture, he said.

But much of that growth has been hampered by new and costly food safety provisions, as well as barriers to legally sponsoring immigrants for seasonal work.

“Across the board, there’s been oppressive regulation,” Bonanno said.

For some business owners, there is less good news to dampen the bad.

Andrew Raker, owner of Clark Paint Factory in West Springfield for 30 years, said that between 2007 and 2008, his business dropped by about one-third. Things are climbing back, he said, but the recovery is painfully slow. Between this year and last year, business has been about the same, he said.

“We still consider it way off from where we need to be,” Raker said. “But I feel happy that we’re still here.”

The state of the economy — and how it has affected voters personally — has shaped opinions in the presidential race.

One week before the 2008 presidential election, Betsy Manchester of Nottingham, N.H., told a newspaper reporter that she worried about national security.

Now, Manchester said, her concerns have shifted to the economy, and she plans to vote for Mitt Romney. Her husband’s veteran disability benefits were cut a couple years ago, she said, so the family has had to eliminate vacations or trips to visit family. Her grown children struggle to repay student loans.

“Everything has gone up . . . but our incomes,” said Manchester, 62. “We’re still living on the same thing.”

For Nicole Losada, 19, a junior at Boston University, there’s no doubt that life has proven more challenging over the last four years. In 2008, she was a high school student hopeful about going to college. In January, her father was laid off from his job in upstate New York. As a result, she has now used up her savings for tuition and has taken out a private loan. If she had seen this coming four years ago, she said, she might have enrolled in community college, then transferred to a four-year school.

“It’s really scary to think about what is coming next,” she said.

But Losada also emphasized that she gauges her personal well-being on more than just the economy. And she’s not alone.

Thom Baker of the South End works in the fashion industry, a sphere of business that has faced challenges in recent years.

Still, he said, the economy isn’t the only meter by which to measure the ways his life has changed.

“I’m very glad that we have an administration concerned about people’s rights,” Baker said, “and I’m willing to vote for that again.”

Captain Eddy Sweeney, 27, is an intelligence officer in the US Air Force. Four years ago, he struggled to feel comfortable in the military because he could not tell friends or colleagues that he is gay. He planned to not sign up for another tour.

But since the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which President Obama signed in December 2010, Sweeney has renewed pride in his work and commitment to defending the United States, he said.

“It’s been like night and day,” said Sweeney, who is currently stationed abroad.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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