ECONOMIC RECOVERY: HOW AND FOR WHOM

Here’s issue #26 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 3/31/12. The previous two issues examined the 2008 collapse of US financial firms that caused our current recession. This issue looks at the beginning of an economic recovery.

The US economy is beginning to recover from the Great Recession. It grew at an annual rate of 3% in the 4th quarter of 2011. That’s the good news. However, this growth is still too slow to generate the jobs needed to significantly reduce the high levels of unemployment any time soon.

The bad news is that the portion of household income growth going to workers is at a record low. Although the economy is producing more goods and services than before the recession began, it’s doing so with 6 million fewer workers. That reflects increased productivity, which could mean that everyone would be better off. However, due to public policies (including tax rates) and the weakening of unions, the bulk of the growth in incomes is going to managers and investors, and not to workers. [1]

In the current recovery (2009 – 2010), incomes have grown 2.3% (adjusted for inflation). However, the incomes of the top 1% have grown by 11.6% while the incomes of the bottom 99% have only grown 0.2%. In other words, 93% of the income growth of the current recovery has gone to the 1% with the highest incomes. [2]

The recovery has been slow because consumers don’t have the money to buy much. And consumer spending is 70% of our economy. [3] Our economy needs large numbers of middle and lower-income families with the purchasing power to buy more goods and services; the rich are too few in numbers and save more of their income than anyone else, so giving them more money and purchasing power is not nearly as effective a way to stimulate the economy.

Cuts in government spending are undermining the recovery. State and local governments are laying off about 10,000 workers a month because of reduced revenue and resultant deficits. Similarly, reducing the federal deficit at a time of high unemployment will not help the economy because budget cuts do not create jobs; rather they lead to public sector layoffs and reduced purchases of good and services by government. [4]

The federal government’s stimulus spending did create jobs and reduce the severity of the recession. 80% of economists believe the stimulus increased employment. [5] The best estimates are that it created roughly 3 million jobs and kept the unemployment rate 2% lower than it would have been otherwise. [6] [7] In particular, support for low income households appears to have been an extremely effective way to stimulate the economy and create jobs because these individuals are highly likely to spend their money in the short-term in the local economy. Infrastructure projects, such as highway construction projects, appear to have been nearly as effective. [8] The federal stimulus money that went to states helped them reduce their budget cutting and layoffs. However, the stimulus spending is over and additional government spending to stimulate the economy does not appear likely, to say the least, even though the lessons of the Great Depression would seem to strongly indicate that such spending would help the recovery.


[1]       Reich, R., 3/2/12, “Bye bye American pie: The challenge of the productivity revolution,” http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/03/02-6

[2]       Saez, E., 3/2/12, “Striking it richer: The evolution of top incomes in theUS,”University ofCalifornia,Berkeley, Department of Economics, http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2010.pdf

[3]       Reich, R., 9/30/11, “America faces a jobs depression,” The Guardian, http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/09/30-9

[4]       Krugman, P., 1/29/12, “The austerity debacle,” The New York Times

[5]       The American Prospect, 2/21/12, “The balance sheet”

[6]       Atcheson, J., 2/20/12, “US running on myths, lies, deceptions, and distractions,” http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/02/20-0

[7]       Stiglitz, J., 9/8/11, “How to putAmerica back to work,” Politico.com

[8]       Feyrer, J., & Sacerdote, B., 1/25/10, “Did the stimulus stimulate? Real time estimates of the American Readjustment and Recovery Act,”DartmouthCollege and the National Bureau of Economic Research

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