This time, state and local governments have been slashing spending — and jobs. And since passing President Barack Obama's $862 billion stimulus package in 2009, a divided Congress has been reluctant to try to help the economy with federal spending programs. Trying to contain the $11.1 trillion federal debt has been a higher priority.
Since June 2009, governments at all levels have slashed 642,000 jobs, the only time government employment has fallen in the three years after a recession. This long after the 1973-74 recession, by contrast, governments had added more than 1 million jobs.
Consumer spending has grown just 6.5 percent since the recession ended, feeblest in a postwar recovery. In the first three years of previous recoveries, spending rose an average of nearly 14 percent.
It's no mystery why consumers are being frugal. Many have lost access to credit, which fueled their spending in the 2000s. Home equity has evaporated and credit cards have been canceled. Falling home prices have slashed home equity 49 percent, from $13.2 trillion in 2005 to $6.7 trillion early this year.
Others are spending less because they're paying down debt or saving more. Household debt peaked at 126 percent of after-tax income in mid-2007 and has fallen to 107 percent, according to Haver Analytics. The savings rate has risen from 1.1 percent of after-tax income in 2005 to 4.4 percent in June. Consumers have cut credit card debt by 14 percent — to $865 billion — since it peaked at over $1 trillion in December 2007.
"We were in a period in which we borrowed too much," says Carl Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics. "We are now deleveraging. That's a process that slows us down."
THE JOBS HOLE
The economy shed a staggering 8.8 million jobs during and shortly after the recession. Since employment hit bottom, the economy has created just over 4 million jobs. So the new hiring has replaced 46 percent of the lost jobs, by far the worst performance since World War II. In the previous eight recoveries, the economy had regained more than 350 percent of the jobs lost, on average.
During the 1981-82 recession, the U.S. lost 2.8 million jobs. In the three years and one month after that recession ended, the economy added 9.8 million — replacing the 2.8 million and adding 7 million more.
Never before have so many Americans been unemployed for so long three years into a recovery. Nearly 5.2 million have been out of work for six months or more. The long-term unemployed account for 41 percent of the jobless; the highest mark in the other recoveries was 22 percent.
Gregory Mann, 58, lost his job as a real estate appraiser three years ago. "Basically, I am looking for anything," he says. He has applied to McDonald's, Target and Nordstrom's.
"Nothing, not even a rejection letter," he says.
His wife, a registered nurse, has lost two jobs in the interim — and just received an offer to work reviewing medical records near Atlanta.
"We are broke and nearly homeless," he says. "If this job for my wife hadn't come through, we would be out on the street come Sept. 1 or would have had to move in with relatives."
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has called long-term unemployment a "national crisis." The longer people remain unemployed, the harder it is to find work, Bernanke has said. Skills erode, and people lose contact with former colleagues who could help with the job search.
Usually, workers' pay rises as the economy picks up momentum after a recession. Not this time. Employers don't have to be generous in a weak job market because most workers don't have anywhere to go.
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