The Unemployment Report: Moving Faster, But Too Slow For Takeoff

Rick McGaheyby Rick McGahey, SCEPA Faculty Fellow

After two months of very weak employment data, today’s report for February is a little more encouraging, or at least doesn’t continue the negative trend. The economy added 175,000 jobs, better than the consensus forecast of 149,000, and the unemployment rate bumped up slightly to 6.7 percent. The January jobs number also was revised upward, so the rolling average of the past three months now stands at 126,000 additional jobs per month.

But just to put these numbers in perspective, even we get 175,000 new jobs every month, it will take slightly over two years to reach a relatively full employment rate of 5.5 percent unemployment. And those 175,000 jobs in a month is lower than the average monthly figure for all of 2013, so it isn’t a number that should satisfy policy makers.

So this is not a strong employment report, especially at this stage of the business cycle. The bottom of the Great Recession was reached in June 2009, and we are now over four and a half years into a very weak and slow recovery.

One persistent factor that is holding growth back, and will continue to hold it back, is contracting government spending. The original federal stimulus in response to the Great Recession was never large enough to address the problem; at the time, several economists, including analysts at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere, were calling for a stimulus two to three times higher than we actually got. And even that federal spending was partly offset by state and local government budget cuts.

Throughout this anemic recover, the debate in Washington has been driven by the right-wing Tea Party faction of the Republicans, who insist on continuing budget cuts rather than stimulus and expansion. And they have been winning.

President Obama’s just-released budget for fiscal year 2015 starting in October noted that the budget deficit is coming down, to a projected 3.7 percent of GDP, the lowest figure in five years. But that deficit reduction is part of our economic problem, especially because it has been achieved mostly by cutting spending, which slows the economy.

Since 2009, federal spending has shrunk by 4.1 percent, while tax revenues increased by 2.2 percent from economic growth and some recapture of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. As the Washington Post points out, “To put it another way, there have been nearly $2 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue increases. On the surface, it would appear that the Republicans won the budget wars.”

The Tea Party’s grip on policy isn’t just budgetary. Although Obama is now arguing strongly for federal policies to attack inequality, there is no prospect that he will get legislative support for those, whether it is significantly higher infrastructure spending, a long-overdue increase in the minimum wage, expanding the earned income tax credit for low-income people, or increase education aid from preschool to college. Paul Ryan, one of several potential Republican candidates for President, dismissed Obama’s budget as “a campaign brochure,” signaling another round of seemingly endless Washington budget battles.

While the Tea Party holds sway in Washington, the budget fight will continue to be about further reductions, not stimulus or investment. That means little or no federal stimulus for our anemic economy. And that very likely means slower economic growth, lost output, higher unemployment, slower wage growth, and unnecessary hardship for millions of Americans.

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