As a result, pay raises haven't kept up with even modest levels of inflation. Earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers — a category that covers about 80 percent of the private, nonfarm workforce — have risen just over 6.2 percent since June 2009. Consumer prices have risen nearly 7.2 percent. Adjusted for inflation, wages have fallen 0.8 percent. In the previous five recoveries —the records go back only to 1964 — real wages had gone up an average 1.5 percent at this point.
Falling wages haven't hurt everyone. Lower labor costs helped push corporate profits to a record 10.6 percent of U.S. GDP in the first three months of 2012, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And those surging profits helped lift the Dow Jones industrials 54 percent from the end of June 2009 to the end of last month. Only after the recessions of 1948-49 and 1953-54 did stocks rise more.
Stock investments may be coming back, but savings are still getting squeezed by the rock-bottom interest rates the Fed has engineered to boost the economy. The money Americans earn from interest payments fell from nearly $1.4 trillion in 2008 to barely $1 trillion last year — a drop of more than $370 billion, or 27 percent. That amounts to shrinking income for many retirees.
Washington isn't doing much to help the economy. An impasse between Obama and congressional Republicans brought the U.S. to the brink of default on the federal debt last year —a confrontation that rattled financial markets and sapped consumer and business confidence.
Given the political divide, businesses and consumers don't know what's going to happen to taxes, government spending or regulation. Sharp tax increases and spending cuts are scheduled to kick in at year's end unless Congress and the White House reach a budget deal.
In the meantime, it's difficult for consumers to summon the confidence to spend and businesses the confidence to hire and expand. Never in the postwar period has there been so much uncertainty about what policymakers will do, says Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business: "No one is sure what will actually happen."
As weak as this recovery is, it's nothing like what the U.S. went through in the 1930s. The period known as the Great Depression actually included two severe recessions separated by a recovery that lasted from March 1933 until May 1937.
It's tough to compare the current recovery with the 1933-37 version. Economic figures comparable to today's go back only to the late 1940s. But calculations by economist Robert Coen, professor emeritus at Northwestern University, suggest that things were far bleaker during the recovery three-quarters of a century ago: Coen found that unemployment remained well above 10 percent — and usually above 15 percent — throughout the 1930s.
Only the approach and outbreak of World War II — the ultimate government stimulus program — restored the economy and the job market to full health.
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