Personal Finances, the Great Recession and the Sluggish Recovery
We all keep wishing the economy would "feel
better", don't we? that there could be a sense of greater confidence in
jobs, in opportunities, in everyone's financial situations. We wonder why the recovery from the recent
Great Recession could be taking so very long.
Our last look at the economy, posted in late June, focused
on the job market, and we promised then to talk again about possible reasons
the current malaise has resulted in people dropping out of the labor
force. Very soon, the Census Bureau and
the Labor Department will publish some detailed data for 2013 that hopefully
will help us tackle that question.
Meantime, there is one area we can speak to, the condition
of personal finances, a topic for which we already have a quantity of recent
information. One of the main causes of
the Great Recession was that people borrowed lots and lots of money. Much of the public commentary about that
recession asserts that financial speculation and bankers brought on the
crisis. Clearly they were important, but
it's also true that people took on more and more debt. Bankers and traders did speculative things
with that debt, but it all did start with the consumers who borrowed the money.
A key, then, to the resumption of
stronger growth is likely related to the progress people are making in
correcting this over-reaching.
Mortgages & Homeowners'
Mortgage debt expanded sharply from the middle of 2001
through 2006, over 13% a year. The
payments on that debt, so-called "debt service", surged from 5.9% of
people's disposable income in 2004 to 7.2% at the end of 2007. People who refinanced mortgages borrowed more
than their existing liability during those years, decreasing the equity they
had in their homes. Overall, this home
equity withdrawal amounted to almost $500 billion a year from 2003 to 2006.
As people were stretching their personal financial
conditions, interest rates began to rise in 2004 and people with adjustable
rate mortgages or initially low "teaser" rates saw their mortgage
payments go up sharply. By late 2006,
unusual numbers of borrowers started having trouble keeping current on their
payments on those and regular mortgages as well. The greater delinquencies hurt the lenders
and the owners of bonds backed by the mortgages. The climb in home sales peaked in 2005, and
they began to decline. Home prices
started to fall in 2006; although those have finally begun to climb again, they
remain well below their 2005/06 highs.
The result, even now, is that 17% of homeowners have a mortgage that is
larger than the value of their home. Called
"negative equity", that's actually an improvement from over 25% in
early 2013 and almost 31% in mid-2012, but remains a heavy weight on people's
approach to spending and their outlook on the economy in general.
Even now, after some recovery, housing and mortgage activity
remain in the doldrums. New home
construction this year is running no more than half the pace of 2005, and sales
of existing homes are still down some 30% from that year's pace. The latest weekly report from the Mortgage
Bankers Association shows a new recovery low last week in the volume of
mortgage applications. People are still staying
back from mortgage debt.
Credit Card Debt
Got Big Too
Another consumer debt issue is credit cards. From the spring of 2006 through early 2008,
credit card balances accelerated; from very modest growth of about 2%
year-over-year in early 2006, they were expanding at a 10% rate by late 2007.
Average credit card balances reached what are, to us,
astounding levels: in 2007, households
in the middle 20% income bracket owed $6,300 and those in the next rung down,
$4,900. Balances were higher, of course,
in higher brackets, so the average over the entire income span was $8,200. If these were charged interest at a common
credit card rate of 1-1/2% a month, the interest add-on each month would have
been $120! Delinquency rates on credit
cards in those years hovered around 9% and rose rapidly during the recession;
they reached 13.74% by the spring of 2010.
Credit card usage did slow.
By last year, the middle income bracket's average had fallen to just
$4,900 and the overall average to $5,700, this latter a reduction of 35% from
its peak. People are paying larger
portions of their bills each month too; from 19% of their balance each month in
2006, people in recent months have been paying almost 25%. The lower balances have obviously accompanied
more sluggish spending growth. In the
2004-2007 period of big increases in credit card balances, spending was
expanding at rates of 6 and 7% a year.
It declined outright in 2009 and has had a modest, uneven pattern since
then. In 2013, people increased their
outlays on categories of items that might be charged to a card by just 3% and
this year's second quarter was up 3.6% from a year earlier, half the pace
during the "spree".
There are numerous reasons for the currently mediocre
performance of the U.S. economy, and one of them is surely this restraint on
credit use. Some of this might be banks
turning down applications, but as we note with the mortgage information, people
are not even applying in much volume in the first place. In view of the excess of the 2004-2007
period, this caution is quite appropriate.
Importantly, it is helping to
improve credit quality; credit card delinquencies in the second quarter were
back down to 2.25%, and those on mortgages are down from a peak of 8.9% in
early 2010 to 3.4% in the latest period.
The better delinquency situation is laying the groundwork
for renewed spending growth on a much sounder basis. Recent retail sales reports suggest this
might be happening. Also, we do note
that people are buying cars these days and obviously borrowing to do that. After a long hiatus, many people's cars and
SUVs have simply grown old and need replacing, so it is not surprising to see
this. It is the only category of
ordinary consumer borrowing with much vigor.
People May Still
Not Be Saving Enough. Are You?
At the same time, there are two issues still to grapple
with: student loans and saving. Student
loans are a whole topic on their own and we will return to talk about them and
the "worth" of incurring big, long-term debt to pay for college. Saving has improved since the Crash and
recession, but continues as a matter of concern.
The saving rate, that is, the amount of personal income not
spent, got as low as 2% during the debt-spree years, reached a band of 6-7% in
2011 and 2012 and recently was 5.3% in the second quarter. So it's clearly up off the lows, but not
"high". Also what isn't
"high" is the number of people who actually have a cautionary stash
of emergency cash under their mattress (or in a safe bank account somewhere) . A special Federal Reserve survey of people's
economic well-being taken during 2013 asked them about this: "Have you set aside emergency or rainy
day funds that would cover your expenses for 3 months?" Only 39% of participants said yes. Further, younger people have a lower positive
response: only 33% of households headed by 18-44 year-old people said yes. There is no history of this for comparison,
so we don't know how low that number would have been during the spending-spree
So we are not surprised that the economy remains relatively
sluggish; we believe some of this reflects the extension of a rebuilding effort
for people's own financial standing.
There are lots of other issues, but that is certainly one that had not
impacted previous business cycles so deeply or pervasively. We've illustrated some progress, though, and
look forward to further improvement.
Meantime, stick a little cash under your mattress every paycheck until
you think you can cover three months' worth of expenses!
A new book, published just in May, encouraged us to give
these ideas some extra emphasis. House
of Debt, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, explores mortgage borrowing by zip
code around the country, highlighting the role of the debt itself in generating
the severe recessionary conditions throughout the economy, not just in the
housing sector. The book's subtitle is
"How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It
from Happening Again." Hmmm.
We also consulted Stephan Whitaker's "The Evolution of
Household Leverage during the Recovery", an Economic Commentary of the
Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, dated September 2, 2014. Whitaker has calculated household debt/income
ratios for census tracts around the country.
Footnotes cover specific data sources. Most of our actual data references come from
these sources as presented in the databases of Haver Analytics.
 Federal Reserve Board, Financial Accounts of the U.S. Equity withdrawal amounts are taken from
calculations made by Haver using those Federal Reserve data.
 Payment rates on credit cards from the Standard &
Poor's Ratings Services' U.S. Credit Card Quality Index (CCQI).
 Data on consumer spending from the Department of
Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), in the "national income
accounts", that is, the same dataset as GDP and its other components. We calculated a "credit card spending
subtotal" by taking total consumer spending and subtracting off housing
services, education, health care, vehicle purchases and other broad spending
categories that aren't likely to be paid for by charging to a credit card.
 The saving rate is also taken from the BEA's national
Labels: Economy, Financial Markets, Personal Finance
A Remembrance of Robin Williams
We have an article in process on consumer finances and their
role in the broader economy. Even as we
are working on that, we recognize that these days are full of heavy-weight
events in the world. In the last few
weeks, we have written of praying for peace (July 18) and we have offered
internet links to aid for the child immigrants in Texas (July 11). Now, we also need to pause and remember a
prominent man who has passed, Robin Williams.
There is much we could say about Williams. We could choose the serious side of his
passing, including his illnesses and the manner of his death. But in this moment, we choose to be
light-hearted and remember the fun he brought us. For Episcopalians, perhaps the easiest and
most sentimental expression of this is a recitation of the gift he gave to us
in particular, "The Top 10 Reasons for Being Episcopalian", which he
presented during an HBO special in 2002.
These have been making the rounds this past week and you may have seen
them already. There's even a tee shirt,
which you can find here: https://www.episcopalbookstore.com/product.aspx?productid=3171
The Top 10 Reasons for Being
9. You can believe in dinosaurs.
8. Male and female God created
them; male and female we ordain them.
7. You don't have to check your
brains at the door.
5. Church year is color-coded.
3. All of the pageantry - none of
2. You don't have to know how to
swim to get baptized.
And the Number One reason to be
1. No matter what you believe,
there's bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.
May Williams help us to laugh at ourselves, which we need to
do often and especially right now!
Labels: Episcopal Church, People
"The Courage to Grow Old"
Last year in this country, there were 19.5 million people
over age 75. This group made up 6.2% of
the total population. By 2026, just 12
years from now, Census Bureau projections indicate there will be about 10
million more of these elderly residents and they will be more than 8% of the
population, growing another 10 million through the subsequent nine years to
So Barbara Crafton has written a book on growing old. We know we don't need to justify any
particular choice of topic for her writings, and her own reason for writing on
this seems to be that she herself feels she is beginning "to grow
old", as is evident in the Preface and Chapter 1 of the book. Still, and perhaps too obvious to deserve
mention, this is a topic of broad general interest, and her comments on several
issues and her impressions of this time in our lives are significant for many
people and their publication significantly timed, as illustrated by our data
Some of the topics are practical: among others, how do you convince
your father that he shouldn't drive a car anymore? How do you handle really elderly parents who
want to live at home or in your home?
How do you conduct yourself on a date?[!] Also, quite logically but with great feeling,
how do you imagine approaching death and dying yourself?
So we have taken a step right here in what Barbara wants us
to do. We're talking about this. We've already taken a courageous step. See what she says on page 8:
In order to help those who love me
deal with my death, I must come to terms with it myself. It will help to think about death in
advance. Trust me [she says], this gets
easier to do with practice – those things of which we refuse to think don't
disappear meekly in response to our refusal:
they go underground. There they
grow in apparent size and virulence, becoming larger and more unthinkable than
they really are. What will happen to me
in my death is that I will join the billions of human beings who have died;
everyone who has ever lived has managed to do this.
We have already had experiences in our lives like this:
major losses, traumatic events. We
realize that in order to function more fully as time passes, the best way to
handle those experiences is to face them head on. Our own death is no different, apparently.
One chapter talks about pain, and Barbara is quick to
distinguish between acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain sends a signal: oops, your finger is too close to the candle
flame. Ouch! Then you take action to stop it. Chronic pain is different. You have to learn to live with chronic pain
and counteract its source or compensate for it.
For instance, maybe your knees won't let you genuflect in church? Then bow instead [that's what we ourselves
have to do!]. She says these strategies
take courage too; from page 35:
I think chronic pain teaches
courage. Real courage, I mean, not
bravado – it teaches the kind of courage that looks unwaveringly at the way
things really are, rather than the strutting, noisy kind that asserts power it
doesn't possess and control over events that human beings don't really
run. No, the courage chronic pain can
teach us is the slow kind, the patient kind – maybe "maturity" is a
better term for it than "courage."
One more notion, an impressionist metaphor: "The Two
Baskets". We are in a basket that
is nested in a bigger basket. Page 80:
Baskets are woven, of course:
strips of grass or straw or wood thread intricately over and under one another
again and again . . . . But there is space between the strips, however tightly
they might be woven. You could peer out
one of those spaces, if you wanted to. . . . Yup, there's something out there
all right. But you can't see it very
clearly through that tiny opening.
Besides, who cares? This basket
is beautiful. It contains everything you
One day, though, the smaller basket
begins to fall apart . . . .
So you get the idea of where that image is going. Barbara helps us understand that we have been
inside the bigger basket all along.
In addition to Barbara's two baskets, we realize that we've actually
seen a third basket. A friend who lately
became a grandmother showed us a picture of her grandson smiling at us – from
the womb. The wonders of ultrasound let
us see inside and there was little Luke, inside the basket inside the basket
inside the basket . . . .
Barbara Crafton's book The Courage to Grow Old
by Morehouse, an imprint of Church Publishing, Incorporated. It is available from Amazon and Barnes &
Noble, in both paperback and Kindle or Nook editions.
Praying for Peace: It's All We Can Do
The Rev. F. M. Buddy Stallings, Rector of St. Bart's on Park
Avenue in Manhattan, is an Associate of the Geranium Farm; his pieces run on
the Farm's website page "A Few Good Writers". This morning, what he emailed sounds exactly
like what we feel about the two simultaneous awful-nesses that are impacting
the world right now, the shooting down of the plane in eastern Ukraine and the fighting
We mourn the loss of some AIDS scientists who were traveling
on the plane, as well as a member of the Dutch Senate, a nun returning to a
teaching job in Sydney after a study sabbatical in Europe, and the numerous
others traveling to Asia.
We learned that Ukraine was, until yesterday, on a major flying route
from Europe to Asia; planes are apparently now being rerouted over Turkey. How will the conflict over that region be reconciled?
We also wish over and over that the terrorism and the
Arab/Israeli distresses could be eased.
We were in the World Trade Center on 9/11, so this is a very personal
Those thoughts prompt us to respond here on Ways of the World, and we take the liberty of copying Buddy's comments so our own readers may see them.
Nothing I had planned to
write today seems weighty enough in light of the events of yesterday: the
shooting down of the Malaysian airliner and Israel's ground operation into
Gaza. . . .
And yet, each of us is
required to have some sort of public reaction -- not a position piece for sure,
but some orientation or perhaps world-view through which we process such
events. Over the years I have in some ways hidden from many of the hard
conversations about conflict and turmoil in the world by claiming that my
positions are theological not political: peace over war, non-violence over
violence, negotiation over action. Though lofty and pious, they also are not,
as I have been told with some regularity, particularly practical or easily
reduced to logistics about how we actually are to live together on an ever-
shrinking globe. I almost envy the bellicose, who at every turn say in a
million ways "there is going to be hell to pay for this; let's go blow
somebody up," and the equally certain, who seem to know in every case the
absolute moral decision to make.
I pray for peace; and
though that seems pretty weak and small, it is all I have. Though God may
clearly expect more, I am not sure what it is and at this point can only wait
until I have further light.
Labels: Prayer, World
Links for Helping with the Immigration Crisis in South Texas
Not your usual Ways of the World
We are –
many of you are, too, probably –
very concerned about the throngs of Central American children coming across the
Texas border. Yesterday, July 10, the Presiding
Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, called our attention
to the work on this crisis issue by various bodies of the Church. Her specific emphasis was on advocacy and
policy. She also certainly feels compassion for the kids themselves, and she urges us to pray and give
As we read her
in a daily email from Episcopal News Service, we were
moved to check on the website of Episcopal Relief & Development for possible
news of actual relief efforts. As many
of you know, the Geranium Farm are long-time supporters of ER-D's work. Sure enough, they are helping get resources
to the relief center being run in McAllen, Texas, right on the border across
the Rio Grande from Reynosa, Mexico, and between Brownsville and Laredo. St. John's Episcopal Church is pitching in at
the center, which is located at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and being managed
by Catholic Charities. At least one of
the local Baptist churches is also participating and possibly other churches.
If you want to send supplies directly to the center, here is
information from Sacred Heart Church: http://sacredheartchurch-mcallen.org/immigrant-assistance/
. This includes the address of the
drop-off center and an itemized list of what they need; it's pretty basic daily-living
stuff for adults and little kids.
Here is a link to the Diocese of
, which has posted pictures of the work and in-kind donations
that are being provided.
Finally, today's New York Times
ran a strongly
by an unlikely group of immigration reform advocates: Sheldon
Adelson, CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, Warren Buffet, CEO of
Berkshire Hathaway, and Bill Gates, Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation and a founder of Microsoft.
These three, who begin with the disclaimer that they don't have common
political perspectives, strongly urge the Congress to get its act together on
immigration reform legislation. This
presently appears unlikely to happen before the November election as everyone
wants to run away from the hot-button issue before constituents vote. But those little kids down there in Texas and
the adults who sent them need some clarity.
So too, as Adelson, Buffett and Gates argue, do the graduate students
from abroad working hard at our universities, and others anxious to come here
legally or to regularize their current status as residents of our country. Contact your Representatives. While the Church's advocacy work helps,
constituent contact will count too.
Labels: American Society, Episcopal Church, Government Policies
The First Generation of Americans
Each year at
the anniversary of American Independence, Ways of the World
historical era with an eye to the key role of ordinary people. The American Revolution was more than battles
and big documents; it marked dramatic changes in the structure of society, in
people’s relationships and in their day-to-day interactions with one another.
this year to see how this reordering played out as the new country and its
culture developed. Recognizing that we
had not read a classic statement of this, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
thought that might be the way to go. Our
seeking brought us instead to a prelude of the years right before Tocqueville’s
trip, which began in 1831. So we focus
the Revolution: the First Generation of Americans
Appleby. She is professor emerita at
UCLA and a former president of the American Historical Association. The book is based largely on her study of
people born from 1776 to 1800, sourced from autobiographies, contemporary press
reports and other primary sources.
and newness and flexibility are the main themes. There had been a big war and the older people
were conditioned by the necessary defenses they had had to put together. The new, younger generation faced no such
constraints; they were looking forward.
Their new orientation became manifest in some surprisingly basic aspects
of living, as Appleby explains.
exercises, we never cease to be amazed at the
historic reach of the American Revolution.
Here follow six significant kinds of changes that emerged early after
it. They concern a fundamental shift of
power, influence and benefits from a limited predetermined elite to a vast
populace exercising initiative. At the
same time, we will have to conclude with some comments about some people who
were largely left out of all this.
1. Politics and the popular press
1790s, many more people were learning to read, and newspapers were expanding
rapidly. As marks affairs today,
inquisitive reporters and commentators got into the workings of government and
of leaders. The process of governing was
now out in the open, no longer conducted in closed rooms, hidden from the
population at large; information was now available to almost everyone. Appleby highlights
the election of Jefferson in 1800 as a demarcation of the social ramifications
of what was happening. Social and
political power were now uncoupled. "[T]he
colonial belief that authority should be exercised through the uncontested
leadership of a recognized cadre of families” was "drowned in a tidal
wave". [Appleby, page 6]
2. Enterprise and expansion
Industrial Revolution along with the end of the American Revolutionary War
meant people could focus on going new places and making new things. They were no longer preoccupied with military
issues and could explore the vastness of the North American continent. Agriculture and the family farm remained the
primary way to make a living, but commercial interests developed to a
substantial extent. Steam engines and
machine tools led to the growth of industry; as the variety of goods available
increased, retailing expanded and all this needed financing, so banking spread
as well. Many new kinds of jobs opened
up. Extending the theme of spreading
leadership, business ventures could be undertaken by anyone, not just members
of certain favored families or those with government connections.
could now make many basic choices about the course of their own lives. “Where once sons had achieved manhood by
emulating their fathers, more and more they were esteemed by carrying a torch
into uncharted territory.” [page 21]
Notably, the very word “career” took on a new definition. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that in
1580, it meant “a race course”. But by
1802, it had come to describe “a person’s progress through life”. [Cited by Appleby, page 270]
now meant several things: movement away from the family home, geographic
mobility even to another region, changing one’s profession, participating in
and gaining influence in governing. The
product of these processes came to be known as the “middle class”, encompassing
people with origins in both ends of the economic spectrum and generating a new
emphasis on peer groups. “Status”,
“merit” and “virtue” were still important, but they took on whole new contexts.
5. Intimate relationships
collapse of venerable hierarchies and the scattering of families” [page 22]
meant people no longer had a pre-existing emotional support system; they had to
be conscious of their emotional needs and seek out relatives and friends with
some deliberateness. In another sphere
of intimacy, religious revivals imparted to church and worship an emotional
character not generally experienced before in more formal worship settings.
6. Voluntary associations
course, continued to be plagued with various problems. Individuals who cared about specific issues
of the day began to form volunteer groups to address them. Appleby emphasizes temperance and urban
charity among more secular issues, while the evangelical revivalist movements
sent people on mission work. These
missions were sometimes foreign, perhaps to India, and some more local, such as
to the Cherokees and the Chickasaws.
Anti-slavery organizations were formed.
So the young
country grew and prospered with broad-based participation in leadership roles
unknown in history before.
was, of course, still not universal:
women and blacks were still restrained.
Women's roles evolved somewhat, though.
Many became literate, with some making writing careers. Others became active in church-work or other
voluntary groups; they became aware that they wanted and should have choices, not necessarily tied automatically to the men in their lives.
careful in many places to specify that the main beneficiaries of the
constructive societal changes were "white men". Blacks (many from the West Indies as well as
Africa) were largely emancipated in the North, could own property and even vote
in some locales. But the Southern
culture was different, remaining staunchly pro-slavery and retaining other hierarchical
characteristics. Part of this is tied to
dependence on labor-intensive cotton-growing as European demand for the fabric expanded. Without more study, we don't want to go on
about this at length, but Appleby makes clear that the seeds of conflict over
these racial differences were sown very early in our history as a nation.
We want to
leave you with two thoughts in this July 4th
Season of 2014. First, much of the news of our day highlights
failures and misgivings people feel about our government and society. But we urge you to stop and put this in
perspective. The US has fostered a
flexible, open lifestyle focused on mobility.
It's distinctive in millennia of history, that we have come, 238 years
after Independence, to want to assure opportunities for everyone, whatever
their background. People who were
prospering in 1800 were already starting to figure out how they could spread this
this spirit of widespread initiative and prosperity is readily evident to other
people all around the world. Some of
them seem to hate us for it and plot our destruction. But many others want to come and join in
it. We see the massive border problems
of this moment and we struggle mightily over how to handle the hordes of illegal
immigrants. Surely this whole situation
is being badly mishandled and the President perhaps did not anticipate the
volume of people who would respond to his unilateral move in 2012 to let young
people stay who arrived in the U.S. as dependent children.
But look at
the statement those young people and their families are making. What you and I have as lives here in the
United States, flawed though our situations may seem to us, looks so great
compared to what those families have now that they are willing to risk everything
to come and be a part of it or send their children in the hope they can have a
Appleby. Inheriting the Revolution: the First Generation of Americans.
Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press. 2000.
Labels: American Society, People
Unemployment Down -- But Not for Good Reasons
economy has grown only sluggishly since the Great Recession, but the
unemployment rate has come down fairly sharply.
It was 6.3% in May, compared to 10.0% at the worst of the recession in
mid-2009. But the share of the
population with jobs, the "employment rate" has hardly moved,
hovering in a narrow range of 58.2 to 58.9%.
If "unemployment" is falling, shouldn't that be because
"employment" is rising? The
incongruity here prompted us to look at what's going on the labor market. There's one broad answer and also some other
factors, all of which together give some explanation, but mainly serve to
highlight the current clouds over the U.S. economy.
Counts as "Unemployed"?
answer to our conundrum is not an encouraging one. The
main reason for a nearly 4 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate from
the depth of the recession in mid-2009 to April and May this year is an almost
parallel decline in the so-called labor force "participation
rate". In the Labor
Department/Census Bureau monthly Current Population Survey, people who respond
that they have a job or are actively hunting one are called
"participants" in the labor force.
As we noted, the number of people who have jobs has increased only
sluggishly since mid-2009. Many of the people
who do not have jobs have stopped looking for work. The Labor Department's terminology only calls
you "unemployed" if you are actually out looking for work and can't
find it. If you haven't been out looking
for work in the past four weeks, you're "not in the labor force" and thus
not "unemployed". The number
of persons not in the labor force is growing and has risen from 34.3% of the
population in mid-2009 to 37.2% in recent months. The opposite ratio, the "participation
rate" has thus dropped from 65.7% to 62.8%. The last time it was that low was in the late
1970s, just the time when the share of women moving into the labor force
pattern of more labor force dropouts is surprising; it is the opposite of what
usually happens after recessions.
Traditionally, as the economy begins to grow, people start to look for
work again, the participation rate goes up and the unemployment rate increases
early in a recovery period until the new jobs emerge; then the unemployment rate
falls. But such an increase in
participation did not occur in this cycle.
If the participation rate had even remained at its recessionary level
instead of falling, the reported unemployment rate now would be about 11.0%,
factor in the lower unemployment rate is the simple aging of the
population. Baby Boomers are entering
and passing through their 60s. Many of
them are retired, of course, so the general level of their participation is
low. But a good number of older people
are still working, and this age group actually increased its employment rates
in recent years. The net result is a favorable downward push on
the unemployment rate, albeit a small one, for the right reason: a larger share
of these people have jobs.
opposite end of the age spectrum, we have some opposite trends, and these are
problematic. Teenagers. About 20 years ago, 54% of the teenage
population, ages 16-19, were in the labor force. Yes, they had high unemployment rates, but
even so, about 44% of them had jobs. As
recently as 2006, not quite 44% were in the labor force and 37% had jobs. But just lately, only a third of these kids
even try to find work and just 27% have jobs.
There's concern in our tone here for both the kids themselves and for
the health of the economy going forward.
A large portion of these young people are missing the early work
experience and training almost half of the rest of us grew up with. Press reports suggest that some kids might do
volunteer community service, although subsequent job-hunting feedback seems to
be less successful for those kids than for ones who have worked for money.
specific comments about the oldest and the youngest workers, but we also have
to note that labor force participation is down among the core group in the
middle. The older workers are largely
retired and the younger workers are mostly in school, while that mid-range are
people who ordinarily are "working for a living". But the mid-range, ages 20-64, have seen
their participation rate fall from 78.4% in mid-2009 to 76.1% recently. So we can't explain away the overall decline
in participation by attributing it to teens and retirees. Something is discouraging people from hunting
So yes, the
unemployment rate is "down", but we'd rather have a higher reported
number and see more people out pounding the sidewalks to get jobs. We obviously have to delve more into causes
about why people aren't doing that. Meantime,
we can address one substantive job market issue.
Yes, there are some.
A separate Labor Department monthly survey of companies and governments
shows 4.46 million job "openings" at the end of April. This is up 289,000 from the month before; it
is approaching the peak range around 4.6 million just before the recession
started in late 2007 and compares to a recession low of 2.15 million openings
in July 2009. The openings are spread
across the whole span of business sectors, with about 850,000 each in retail
and other trade and in professional and business services. The trade sector, of course, tends to be
low-paying, while professional and business services are up the scale
considerably. Manufacturing job
opportunities are running about 270,000 openings; while not so large they are
also well above their recession lows of 75,000-95,000. Health care and hospitality sectors, as well,
show sizable needs for new employees, with accommodations and food services,
especially, having 625,000 openings at the end of April, three times as many as
at the bottom of the recession.
While we present a fairly positive description of these
developments in job openings, it is true that almost five years after the
economy turned upward and supposedly started to grow again, the number of
openings remains below prerecession levels.
Similarly, the total number of jobs reported by employers, 138,463,000
in May, only just in that month recovered its prerecession level of September
2007. So it's hardly surprising that
people still have a subdued opinion of economic opportunity and might not be as
enthusiastic about job hunting as they have been historically. There must be more to this story and we'll
continue to pursue it.