We Won't Climb Out of the Great Recession Until the Middle Class Has Money Again
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We’re falling into a double-dip recession.
The Labor Department reports this morning that the private sector added a measly 41,000 net new jobs in May. (The vast bulk of new jobs in May were temporary government Census workers.) But at least 100,000 new jobs are needed every month just to keep up with population growth.
In other words, the labor market continues to deteriorate.
The average length of unemployment continues to rise – now up to 34.4 weeks (up from 33 weeks in April). That’s another record.
More Americans are too discouraged to look for a job than last year at this time (1.1 million in May, an increase of 291,000 from a year earlier.)
Of the small number of jobs created by the private sector in May, many came from temporary help services.
Which is one reason why the median wage continues to drop.
Why are we having such a hard time getting free of the Great Recession? Because consumers, who constitute 70 percent of the economy, don’t have the dough. They can’t any longer treat their homes as ATMs, as they did before the Great Recession.
Businesses won’t rehire if there’s not enough demand for their goods and services.
The only reason the economy isn’t in a double-dip recession already is because of three temporary boosts: the federal stimulus (of which 75 percent has been spent), near-zero interest rates (which can’t continue much longer without igniting speculative bubbles), and replacements (consumers have had to replace worn-out cars and appliances, and businesses had to replace worn-down inventories). Oh, and, yes, all those Census workers (who will be out on their ears in a month or so).
But all these boosts will end soon. Then we’re in the dip.
Retail sales are already down.
So what’s the answer? In the short term, more stimulus – especially extended unemployment benefits and aid to state and local governments that are whacking schools and social services because they can’t run deficits.
But the deficit crazies in the Senate, who can’t seem to differentiate between short-term stimulus (necessary) and long-term debt (bad) last week shot it down.
In the longer term, we need a new New Deal that will bolster America’s floundering middle class.
Most prior recessions were caused by the Fed over-shooting in trying to control inflation by raising interest rates too high. So the garden-variety recession could be reversed by the Fed reversing itself and lowering rates. But the Great Recession was caused by the bursting of a huge housing bubble. And that can’t be reversed without a major restructuring of the economy because housing prices won’t be back to where they were — and won’t be rising above that peak — for years.
We have to get to the core problem: a middle class that doesn’t have the dough to buy the goods and services the economy is capable of produciing. Where to start? Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and extend it up through the middle class. Finance that extension through higher marginal income taxes on the wealthy, who have never had it so good.
Robert B. Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He also served on President Obama's transition advisory board. His latest book is Supercapitalism.