By Greg McCune
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Many Americans seem to be in a sour mood as 2013 begins, after Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of the East Coast, a gunman massacred 20 school children in Connecticut and a long, contentious election campaign was followed by failure to resolve the "fiscal cliff" issue by year-end.
Americans have not been very optimistic since the Great Recession of 2008-2009, but the gloom had begun to lift this year until the blast of bad news as 2012 ended, IPSOS pollster Cliff Young said on Monday. IPSOS polling showed that some angst set in as the year ended.
Sixty-eight percent of respondents said the economy was on the wrong track at the end of 2012, IPSOS said, and 64 percent had a negative opinion of national politics.
"I do think these events had some sort of effect on people's short-term prospects," Young said.
But the headlines of 2012 belie a number of positive underlying trends in America, and Young said he expects public opinion to turn more positive in the new year.
Here is a summary of some of the positive trends in health, health, security, the environment, personal finance and education:
COLLEGE EDUCATION: More than 30 percent of Americans 25 years of age or older have finished four years of college, the highest level since 1940. Another 26 percent of adults have completed one to three years of college such as a community college, according to Census Bureau data.
This is important because the lifetime earnings of a person with a college associate's degree working from age 25 to 64 will be $442,000 more than that of a high school graduate. A bachelor's degree could yield $1 million more in lifetime earnings, a Census Bureau study found.
CONSUMER DEBT: While Americans are known as big spenders on credit, some surveys show that since the Great Recession of 2008-09, consumers are becoming more frugal. The average consumer with an account had credit card debt of $5,371 in November, 2012, down from $6,503 the same month a year ago, according to consumer organization Credit Karma. Average mortgage and auto debt also was down and even student loan debt, which has been rising, inched lower in November.
The end of the year usually brings increases in credit card debt due to holiday shopping, but consumers seem to be spending more responsibly and paying more with cash. Spending has been more conservative in general over the last four years since the recession, and credit card companies are lowering debt limits, Credit Karma said.
CHARITABLE GIVING: Despite the uncertain economy, Americans continue to be generous to charities. Donations rose to $298.42 billion in 2011, the highest since the Great Recession, although giving has not yet reached pre-recession levels.
Giving by Americans increased 4 percent in 2011 compared with 2010, with individual donations accounting for nearly three-quarters of the total, according to the 57th annual report by the Giving USA Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Corporate donations remained flat at $14.5 billion last year, foundations made almost $42 billion in grants - an increase of 1.8 percent - while gifts from estates jumped more than 12 percent to $24.4 billion.
The money went to around 1.1 million registered charities and some 222,000 American religious groups.
Religious groups received the most donations - about one- third of the total - but dropped 1.7 percent in 2011 to $95.8 billion. The only other sector to record a drop in donations was giving to foundations, which fell 6.1 percent to $25.8 billion.
CANCER: Cancer claims the lives of more than half a million Americans every year and is the second leading cause of death after heart disease. But the numbers of deaths and people afflicted with the disease continue to decline, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the latest data is for 2008, officials said the trend continued in more recent years.
The federally funded CDC attributes the decline to identifying populations with unhealthy sedentary lifestyles and obesity, and intervening in a targeted way to improve their health and prevent cancer.
The highest rate of cancer deaths in the United States is for lung cancer, followed by prostate, breast cancer among women, colon, pancreatic, ovarian cancer and leukemia.
While lung cancer causes a greater rate of deaths, it is not the most frequent cancer. More Americans contract prostate cancer than any other type of the disease, followed by women with breast cancer. Lung cancer is third, followed by colon cancer, women with cancer of the uterus, and urinary bladder cancer.
SMOKING: The number of Americans who smoke continues to gradually decline, to 19 percent of adults over 18 in 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available, from 19.3 percent in 2010. The news is even better for young adults: the rate of smoking among 18- to 24-year-olds dropped to 18.9 percent in 2011 from 24.4 percent in 2005.
The best trend of all is that four out of five teenagers do not smoke, and teen smoking has been on the decline since 2000, although the rate of decline has slowed.
Fewer people addicted to tobacco means lower health costs and fewer deaths, such as from lung cancer, down the road, according to the CDC.
TEEN PREGNANCY: The number of births to girls aged 15 to 19 fell 8 percent in 20ll to a record low level. Teens seems to be less sexually active and more of those who are active seem to be using birth control, the CDC said.
CHILD OBESITY: After years of grim news about Americans getting fatter and sedentary, overweight children fixated on video games, the first signs of hope emerged this year. The CDC said new data showed a "modest" decline in child obesity in recent years. Two possible reasons - higher rates of breastfeeding and rising awareness of the importance of physical activity among young kids. A CDC study found 13 percent of preschoolers surveyed were obese in 1998, growing to 15 percent in 2003, but again falling below 15 percent by 2010, the most recent study year.
DRINKING AND DRIVING: The incidence of Americans driving after drinking too much has declined by 30 percent over the past 5 years although it remains a serious problem. Four-in-five drunk drivers are men and especially men from ages 21 to 34.
The best news is that drinking and driving among teenagers has fallen 54 percent since 1991. Only about 10 percent of teens ages 16 years or older had driven after drinking in 2011 compared with more than 20 percent two decades ago.
The reasons for this success include a minimum drinking age of 21 in all states, zero tolerance laws, graduated drivers' license systems and better parental monitoring, according to the CDC.
LAW ENFORCEMENT DEATHS: Deaths of law enforcement officials in the line of duty fell by 23 percent in 2012 after two years of sharp increases. Some 127 federal, state and local officers were killed, with traffic accidents the top cause of death, followed by shootings.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund attributed the reduction to better safety for police such as use of bullet-proof vests.
While national headlines have regularly featured terrible shootings such as those at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the number of police officers killed in shootings fell 32 percent in 2012.
AIR QUALITY: In 2010, about 90 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These emissions form ozone and particles, reduce visibility and deposition of acids, and visibility impairment.
But the good news is that pollution in the air we breathe is down substantially in all categories. In the three decades since 1980, emissions of carbon monoxide from cars, ozone, lead, nitrogen, sulfur and particulate matter such as soot all have declined. Carbon monoxide is down 82 percent, lead down 90 percent, nitrogen down 52 percent and sulfur declined 76 percent.
TRASH: Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash in 2010, most of which fouls the environment or goes into landfills. We may be starting to reform our wasteful ways, according to data from the EPA. The amount of waste generated per person per day had declined to 4.43 pounds by 2010 from 4.67 pounds five years earlier, according to the EPA.
Another positive trend is that recycling is increasing. Of the 250 million tons of trash produced in 2010, more than 85 million tons or 34.1 percent was recycled or composted.
(Reporting By Greg McCune; Editing by Eric Walsh)