If you went out this morning and saw hundreds of people lining up at soup kitchens, you'd think you were in a time machine, transported back to the Great Depression of the '30s, or the victim of a hallucination incubated by powerful images of those times. In fact, it is the absence of such images that is the illusion. We believe we live in more normal times—and we do not. Millions of people today are experiencing exactly the same struggle as the millions did in the Great Depression. They can't find work. They depend on government and philanthropy. They live on hope denied.
The big difference: Today millions are assisted by checks from Social Security and by food stamps. Food-stamp enrollment has been rising at the rate of 400,000 per month. More than 47 million Americans now depend on that program, an almost incredible record, for it is 15 percent of the population compared with the 7.9 percent who received food stamps from 1970 to 2000. Meanwhile, nearly 11 million Americans are now collecting federal disability checks from Social Security, and half have signed on since President Obama came to office. In 1992, there was one person on disability for every 35 workers. Today it is one for every 16. Such an increase simply cannot have been caused by direct disability experienced during employment. This is in effect another unemployment program, one without end. Many of the people on disability would normally be considered unemployed.
The reality is, we are experiencing a modern-day Depression. It is harder to find work than it has been in any previous economic recovery period. Typically, it takes 25 months to close the employment gap from the employment peak near the start of a downturn. But this time around, five years after employment peaked in January 2008, non-farm employment is still roughly 4 million below where it started. Never before has the job level not been at a record high during the fourth year into a business cycle.
In fact, 4.5 million fewer Americans are working today than when the recession started, and fewer are working today than in the year 2000, despite the fact that our population has grown by 31 million and our labor force by 11.4 million. Though the White House forecast four years ago that, with its stimulus policies, the jobless rate would be down to 5.2 percent by now, the real unemployment rate is 14.4 percent.
The Pew Research Center reports that for the first time in the post-World War II era, middle-class families finished the decade significantly poorer in terms of household net worth—which is down almost 40 percent since 2007—and with lower incomes than a decade earlier. This has hit the middle class harder than any other group. According to Pew, one third of Americans now identify themselves as lower class or lower middle class, a deterioration since 2008 when one quarter identified themselves that way.
The outlook is no better. Job seekers are only one third as likely to find a job now as they were in 2006. A record number of households have at least one member looking for a job. Some 40 percent of the people who are unemployed have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, which means we've got 4.8 million who are described as "long-term" unemployed. Employers are shortening the work week or asking employees to take unpaid leave in unprecedented numbers. Those taking unpaid leave are not included in the unemployment count.
Indeed, the recession has shown employers that they can make do with fewer workers. Now over 20 percent of companies say that employment in their firms will not return to pre-recession levels.
Older Americans, whose net worth has taken a huge hit (75 percent of it due to a decline in their home equity), can't afford to quit. Since the recession began, employment in that age group of 55 and older is up by over 3 million, in contrast to total employment, which is down by 5 million. The baby boomers are quite simply postponing their exit from the workforce. This has created a huge bottleneck for the nation's youth, who now face double-digit unemployment.
We are living through a breakdown of the great American jobs machine. This is not a recovery. Annual GDP growth in 2010 and 2011 averaged a mere 2.4 percent; in 2012, GDP growth slowed to 1.8 percent. In other words, cumulative growth for the last 11 quarters was just 6.8 percent, less than half the 15.2 percent average growth in GDP after previous recessions over a similar period of time. This is the slowest growth rate following all 11 post-World War II recessions. We need to create between 1.8 million and 3 million new jobs every year just to absorb the labor force's new entrants, at a time when technology and globalization are wiping out many middle-class jobs in manufacturing and transportation. It is unacceptable that at the current rate of job creation (151,000 per month) and working age population growth (up by 120,000 per month) it would take us until 2024 to re-attain the old employment peak, according to David Rosenberg of the wealth management firm Gluskin Sheff.
The issue is not just job quantity but job quality. Whatever job openings we have are mostly low-wage jobs that haven't been exposed to global competition. More than 40 percent are in low-paying categories such as leisure, hospitality, bars, and restaurants. The dramatic shift to a part-time, low-wage workforce reflects the fact that many companies feel it is too risky to take on people full time.
One study by scholars at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the American Enterprise Institute showed that a worker between the ages of 50 and 61 who has been unemployed for over a year has only a 9 percent chance of finding a job in the next three months. The odds fall to 6 percent if the worker is 62 years or older. Young workers are experiencing a double whammy: The weak economy has made them realize they can't afford to start a family. The result is that the birth rate has just hit a 25-year low of 1.87 births per woman.
Millions of families are one layoff or one medical emergency away from bankruptcy. The future of the unemployed is dubious; many have seen their skills atrophy, thus shrinking their earning power for the rest of their lives. When economic activity picks up, employers will undoubtedly first choose to increase hours for existing workers.
According to Rosenberg, only 41 percent of people polled in the University of Michigan's Consumer Confidence Survey believe the economy has improved from a year ago and a mere 28 percent think things are going to get better in the next 12 months. Only 11 percent think Washington is doing a good job, while 47 percent say policymakers are doing a poor job.
What is worrisome, Rosenberg points out, is that the expectations about the economy are down 16 points in three months. This kind of drop took place before all nine recessions of the past 50 years, and produced six more economic downturns. No recession since the end of World War II has been as deep or as long as this one, severely testing the optimism, confidence, and animal spirits that typify the temper of America. The question of the hour is how can we find a way to avoid becoming a low-wage, part-time country.
Here's the draft of a solution:
- Create a federal bank that would take advantage of the low interest rates to dramatically increase private and public capital for new construction. Repair the infrastructure we have. In effect, we must create a domestic Marshall Plan devoted to profitable investments in the national electric grid and fracking infrastructure; in high-speed Internet; in bridges, roads, and tunnels; in airports and high-speed rail; and in human capital. Such a program would increase employment because of the well-documented investment accelerator/multiplier effects.
- Increase investment in education, especially vocational training and postsecondary education, strengthening science, technology, engineering, and math in high schools and at the university level.
- Stop talking about tax reform, and do it! Broaden the base and get rid of the loopholes, deductions, and credits—and the inherent corruption related to them—so as to enable lower marginal tax rates.
Ordinary Americans get it. They are looking for leadership and renewal.
- Read Peter Roff: As Unemployment Goes Up, Obama's 'Jobs Council' Goes Down
- Read Keith Hall: More Government Spending Won't Reduce Poverty
- Read John Kane: Obama's Inaugural Silence on Job Creation Was Deafening