Adding to Americans' job concerns, the stock market in May is on track for its worst month since last September. The S&P 500 is down 4.6 percent for the month.
But on Tuesday, Wall Street seemed to shrug off the report. The Dow Jones industrial average was up about 68 points by mid-afternoon.
That indicates investors may be more confident in the economic recovery than consumers, said John Lonski, chief economist of Moody's.
"Financial markets are giving short shrift to the drop in consumer confidence," Lonski said.
Investors may have been paying closer attention to the much sunnier Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment that came out Friday. That index, which is also considered a measure of consumer confidence, jumped to 79.3 in May for its best reading since October 2007 — two months before the recession began.
The biggest reason for the difference, economists said, was probably timing: The Conference Board finished its survey May 16, while the University of Michigan survey continues throughout the month. That means the Conference Board didn't capture all the recent declines in gas prices, and it finished just as worries about Europe's financial crisis hit a crescendo, ahead of an international summit.
The markets could also have played a role. The Dow fell sharply in the first half of the month, then leveled off after May 16.
The timing "does make a difference, especially in a month where we were riding a roller-coaster," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial.
Meanwhile, recent signs that an economic slowdown is spreading beyond Europe to fast-growing countries like China have raised fears that U.S. companies could pull back on hiring as demand weakens for their products. The housing market also is still weak, and many consumers are seeing their retirement investments shrink because of falling stock prices.
Associated Press Writer Christopher S. Rugaber in Washington contributed to this report.