BERLIN (Reuters) - Germans living in the former communist east are no longer more fearful for the future than their compatriots, according to an annual survey out on Thursday that showed no east-west gap in the "angst index" for the first time in 21 years.
A nation of worriers, more than four in 10 Germans still suffer high anxiety, but that has fallen from the peaks around the al Qaeda attacks in the United States and Europe in the 2000s, the global financial crisis and the start of the euro crisis.
The "Fears of the Germans" survey carried out by the R+V insurance company since 1992 - two years after unification - found that Germans are much more worried about a rise in the cost of living than terrorism, unemployment or divorce.
German annual inflation stands at just 1.5 percent, the jobless rate of 6.8 percent is near post-unification lows and wages have started to rise after a decade of stagnation. But some 7 million Germans earn less than 8.50 euros per hour - the legal minimum wage proposed by the centre-left opposition.
"All of this means that for a large segment of the people we polled, the money they have at their disposal is very tight," said political scientist Manfred Schmidt, presenting the survey.
Although overall consumer price inflation is low, a sharp increase in food and energy bills has meant "perceived inflation is higher than actual inflation", the professor told reporters.
This erosion of many Germans' disposable income is one of Social Democrat (SPD) candidate Peer Steinbrueck's main platforms as he campaigns to oust Chancellor Angela Merkel in an upcoming election. He wants to raise taxes on the wealthy.
Sixty-one percent of the 2,400 Germans surveyed by R+V were worried about the cost of living, the top concern followed by natural disasters - after severe floods in June - and fears for their health in old age. Four in 10 worried about unemployment.
Jobless levels remain stubbornly high in much of the former East Germany, where overall worry levels have been consistently higher since the survey began - until now. Residents of the east remain more concerned about economic issues like prices and jobs but are more sanguine about terrorism than people in the west.
Nearly seven out of 10 believed the euro zone debt crisis would continue to make demands of German taxpayers and more than half believed the single currency was still at risk. But levels of anxiety about the euro crisis have fallen since last year.
The pollsters were surprised by the fact that, unlike in previous surveys coinciding with a federal election, Germans had expressed much less worry about their political leadership. Only 45 percent found this a concern, 10 points lower than in 2012.
"When people are relatively optimistic about their economic prospects they tend to be more lenient on politicians," said Schmidt, who declined to predict how this would affect Merkel's chances of winning a third term on September 22.
Editing by Tom Pfeiffer