A few thoughts from Professor Krugman on unemployment and my own on the mid-term election

One of the issues in the mid-term elections is the failure of the economy to fully recover.  Having watched bits and pieces of the new Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts  I see some parallels between FDR and President Obama.  Both Presidents saw the economy begin to slow after showing good signs of recovery. In FDR’s case it actually fell back into recession.  The mistake in both cases is, at least in part, the failure to continue to fund government programs to create jobs,  to end the programs too quickly.  FDR came to understand this; Barack Obama always did.  But the current Congress doesn’t seem to get it.

Breadlines: long line of people waiting to be fed: New York City: in the absence of substantial government relief programs during 1932, free food was distributed with private funds in some urban centers to large numbers of the unemployed. (Circa February 1932)

Breadlines: long line of people waiting to be fed: New York City: in the absence of substantial government relief programs during 1932, free food was distributed with private funds in some urban centers to large numbers of the unemployed. (Circa February 1932)

At the end of my work life I got to administer some of the stimulus funding.  What I saw was not the direct creation of a huge number jobs with government  funding, but many jobs created as the result of the opening of a new business, new hotel, or new housing.  Those employed persons paid taxes which helped bolster the economy.  If the benefits of having people employed are obvious to an economic novice like me,  I don’t understand why the Republicans in Congress don’t want to fund infrastructure projects.  Road and bridge repairs, creating a grid that can tie in with alternative energy sources, construction of affordable housing:  these are just a few of the types of projects that can be government funded and that can create jobs.  While construction jobs may disappear, the infrastructure created will result in new opportunities.

Paul Krugman’s recent column helps me understand a little what may be going on.  He begins

Last week John Boehner, the speaker of the House, explained to an audience at the American Enterprise Institute what’s holding back employment in America: laziness. People, he said, have “this idea” that “I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d rather just sit around.” Holy 47 percent, Batman!

People are just lazy.  Krugman continues

First things first: I don’t know how many people realize just how successful the campaign against any kind of relief for those who can’t find jobs has been. But it’s a striking picture. The job market has improved lately, but there are still almost three million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months, the usual maximum duration of unemployment insurance. That’s nearly three times the pre-recession total. Yet extended benefits for the long-term unemployed have been eliminated — and in some states the duration of benefits has been slashed even further.

The result is that most of the unemployed have been cut off. Only 26 percent of jobless Americans are receiving any kind of unemployment benefit, the lowest level in many decades. The total value of unemployment benefits is less than 0.25 percent of G.D.P., half what it was in 2003, when the unemployment rate was roughly the same as it is now. It’s not hyperbole to say that America has abandoned its out-of-work citizens.

If unemployment is too costly, then any kind of jobs program must cost way too much.

…My question for today is instead one of psychology and politics: Why is there so much animus against the unemployed, such a strong conviction that they’re getting away with something, at a time when they’re actually being treated with unprecedented harshness?

Is it race? That’s always a hypothesis worth considering in American politics. It’s true that most of the unemployed are white, and they make up an even larger share of those receiving unemployment benefits. But conservatives may not know this, treating the unemployed as part of a vaguely defined, dark-skinned crowd of “takers.”

My guess, however, is that it’s mainly about the closed information loop of the modern right. In a nation where the Republican base gets what it thinks are facts from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, where the party’s elite gets what it imagines to be policy analysis from the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation, the right lives in its own intellectual universe, aware of neither the reality of unemployment nor what life is like for the jobless. You might think that personal experience — almost everyone has acquaintances or relatives who can’t find work — would still break through, but apparently not.

The bottom line:  If you are still unemployed or if you are poor it is your own fault.  Besides, those people live in a world far from the world of Fox News.

I hope that people think about the state of the semi-recovered economy when they vote and that they vote for candidates who can learn from the lessons of the Depression, will vote some funding for jobs programs and not worry so much about the deficit which is shrinking.  They should instead worry about our infrastructure which is failing.  If they fix that, they may find people aren’t lazy, they just need jobs.

 Photograph:  Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Boomers and the job numbers

What does the retirement of the baby boom generation have to do with the job numbers you might ask.  I never thought of my retirement impacting the unemployment rate but reading Paul Krugman in the New York Times this morning, I realize that in a strange way I am helping the economy.  Yes, I’ve read all  the stories about how we didn’t save enough, how our homes (the big retirement plan for many) have lost value, how interest rates are hurting retirees, how the numbers are going to make Medicare and Social Security go broke and on and on.  But it never occurred to me that maybe the estimated 10.000 people a day who retire might actually be good for the economy.  Think about it.  Each person who retires has the potential to open up a job for someone else.  The bottom line is there is still work that needs to be done and at some point someone will be hired to do it.

 

AARP Social Security for Dummies Book Jacket

 

Krugman writes

 …the methods the bureau uses are public — and anyone familiar with the data understands that they are “noisy,” that especially good (or bad) months will be reported now and then as a simple consequence of statistical randomness. And that in turn means that you shouldn’t put much weight on any one month’s report.

In that case, however, what is the somewhat longer-term trend? Is the U.S. employment picture getting better? Yes, it is.

Some background: the monthly employment report is based on two surveys. One asks a random sample of employers how many people are on their payroll. The other asks a random sample of households whether their members are working or looking for work. And if you look at the trend over the past year or so, both surveys suggest a labor market that is gradually on the mend, with job creation consistently exceeding growth in the working-age population.

On the employer side, the current numbers say that over the past year the economy added 150,000 jobs a month, and revisions will probably push that number up significantly. That’s well above the 90,000 or so added jobs per month that we need to keep up with population. (This number used to be higher, but underlying work force growth has dropped off sharply now that many baby boomers are reaching retirement age.)

Meanwhile, the household survey produces estimates of both the number of Americans employed and the number unemployed, defined as people who are seeking work but don’t currently have a job. The eye-popping number from Friday’s report was a sudden drop in the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent from 8.1 percent, but as I said, you shouldn’t put too much emphasis on one month’s number. The more important point is that unemployment has been on a sustained downward trend.

But isn’t that just because people have given up looking for work, and hence no longer count as unemployed? Actually, no. It’s true that the employment-population ratio — the percentage of adults with jobs — has been more or less flat for the past year. But remember those aging baby boomers: the fraction of American adults who are in their prime working years is falling fast. Once you take the effects of an aging population into account, the numbers show a substantial improvement in the employment picture since the summer of 2011.

unemployment

unemployment (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

 

So the job growth and unemployment figures are slowly improving.  The overall trend is up for growth and down for unemployment.  I think one of the most shocking reactions to the numbers was the notion that they were somehow being manipulated and the things were actually much worse.  Do some like Jack Welsh actually want things to either get worse or at least to stay bad?  They just can’t bring themselves to admit that President Obama may be succeeding – despite Congress and the Republicans and turning things around.  Do they really need to win that badly?

Krugman says it better

…The U.S. economy is still far short of where it should be, and the job market has a long way to go before it makes up the ground lost in the Great Recession. But the employment data do suggest an economy that is slowly healing, an economy in which declining consumer debt burdens and a housing revival have finally put us on the road back to full employment.

And that’s the truth that the right can’t handle. The furor over Friday’s report revealed a political movement that is rooting for American failure, so obsessed with taking down Mr. Obama that good news for the nation’s long-suffering workers drives its members into a blind rage. It also revealed a movement that lives in an intellectual bubble, dealing with uncomfortable reality — whether that reality involves polls or economic data — not just by denying the facts, but by spinning wild conspiracy theories.

It is, quite simply, frightening to think that a movement this deranged wields so much political power.

Talking jobs and unemployment

Today I went to a graduation for 58 men and women – almost all over 3o – who went to a program at the local YMCA to sharpen skills and make them more competitive in the job market.  I shared an intern with several others in my agency.  It was announced that 8 or 9 had found jobs.  Not bad in this market, but not good either. 

Last week the Boston Globe ran a story about the report by the National Skills Coalition. 

The report projects that by 2016, Massachusetts will have nearly 400,000 job openings that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree. The report says “middle-skill” jobs will account for 38 percent of all openings.

Ranging from licensed practical nurses to computer support specialists, the jobs have median annual incomes of about $50,000 to $55,000.

The report says the state faces challenges in meeting the demand for middle-skilled workers, with only 32 percent of current employees having the credentials.

The graduation I attended was designed to train people for these middle-skill jobs.  But until the jobs are created, the graduates still need to pay the rent, the mortgage, buy food and clothes.  These are men and women who are doing the rights things and are still finding it tough to find a job.  Some of them were unemployed before entering the program and some will be unemployed after graduation.  Some may be eligible for unemployment benefits, but may have exhausted their time.  Which brings me to the unemployment benefits issue.

Let’s start with Paul Krugman.

There was a time when everyone took it for granted that unemployment insurance, which normally terminates after 26 weeks, would be extended in times of persistent joblessness. It was, most people agreed, the decent thing to do.

But that was then. Today, American workers face the worst job market since the Great Depression, with five job seekers for every job opening, with the average spell of unemployment now at 35 weeks. Yet the Senate went home for the holiday weekend without extending benefits. How was that possible?

The answer is that we’re facing a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused. Nothing can be done about the first group, and probably not much about the second. But maybe it’s possible to clear up some of the confusion.

So who are the heartless?  They are Republicans and some Democrats a tiny number of whom may be acting out of principle.  They hide behind the deficit and statements from the clueless.

By the clueless I mean people like Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for senator from Nevada, who has repeatedly insisted that the unemployed are deliberately choosing to stay jobless, so that they can keep collecting benefits. A sample remark: “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job but it doesn’t pay as much. We’ve put in so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry.”

Now, I don’t have the impression that unemployed Americans are spoiled; desperate seems more like it. One doubts, however, that any amount of evidence could change Ms. Angle’s view of the world — and there are, unfortunately, a lot of people in our political class just like her.

And then Krugman tackles the misinformed.

But there are also, one hopes, at least a few political players who are honestly misinformed about what unemployment benefits do — who believe, for example, that Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, was making sense when he declared that extending benefits would make unemployment worse, because “continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.” So let’s talk about why that belief is dead wrong.

Do unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to seek work? Yes: workers receiving unemployment benefits aren’t quite as desperate as workers without benefits, and are likely to be slightly more choosy about accepting new jobs. The operative word here is “slightly”: recent economic research suggests that the effect of unemployment benefits on worker behavior is much weaker than was previously believed. Still, it’s a real effect when the economy is doing well.

But it’s an effect that is completely irrelevant to our current situation. When the economy is booming, and lack of sufficient willing workers is limiting growth, generous unemployment benefits may keep employment lower than it would have been otherwise. But as you may have noticed, right now the economy isn’t booming — again, there are five unemployed workers for every job opening. Cutting off benefits to the unemployed will make them even more desperate for work — but they can’t take jobs that aren’t there.

Will extending benefit add the to deficit?  Krugman tackles this one also.

But won’t extending unemployment benefits worsen the budget deficit? Yes, slightly — but as I and others have been arguing at length, penny-pinching in the midst of a severely depressed economy is no way to deal with our long-run budget problems. And penny-pinching at the expense of the unemployed is cruel as well as misguided.

But is being against extending benefits a political plus?  Not according to two new polls out today.  According to the New York Times story in the Caucus both a CBS News and a ABC News/Washington Post poll found the majority of those surveyed believed that Congress should extend benefits.

In the CBS News survey, 52 percent of respondents said Congress should extend unemployment benefits for people currently out of work, even if it meant increasing the budget deficit. Thirty-nine percent disagreed, and the rest said “it depends” or gave no opinion.

Broken down by party affiliation, about 7 in 10 Democrats said they supported an extension, while most Republicans said they opposed it. Independents were more evenly divided, with 47 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll asked the question a little differently, and found even more support for an extension of unemployment benefits. The question noted that Congress had previously extended benefits because of the economic downturn, and was considering extending them again. It also presented capsules of each side of the debate, noting that supporters of the extension say it “will help those who can’t find work” while opponents say it “adds too much to the federal budget deficit.”

The result: 62 percent of respondents said Congress should approve another extension, while 36 percent said it should not. Those in favor included 80 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents, as well as 43 percent of Republicans.

So there doesn’t seem to be a lot of gain in opposition.

Standing with three Americans who have struggled to find work, President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden about the need to extend unemployment benefits.

The last word goes to the President.

Under pressure in an election year to reduce the unemployment rate, now at 9.5 percent, Mr. Obama also urged the Senate to approve a package of tax cuts and an expansion of lending to small businesses. “We all have to continue our efforts to do everything in our power to spur growth and hiring,” Mr. Obama said at the White House.

Mr. Obama, appearing before reporters in the Rose Garden flanked by three Americans who have had difficulty finding work, took aim at that argument. “That attitude reflects a lack of faith in the American people,” Mr. Obama said. “They’re not looking for a handout. They desperately want to work.”

Mr. Obama sharply criticized Republicans who have several times in the past month voted against bringing an unemployment extension bill to the Senate floor.

“After years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, the same people who didn’t have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle-class Americans like Jim or Leslie or Denise, who really need help,” Mr. Obama said, referring to the three people who stood with him in the Rose Garden, brought to Washington by the White House to help illustrate the president’s point.

The Bill will pass this week, probably without Republican support, after we get the new temporary Senator from West Virginia, Carte Goodwin. 

  

The Recession Effect

Two stories in today’s papers, one in the Boston Globe and the other in the New York Times, combined with a sudden flurry of foreclosure activity at the office reminds me that the lagging  job creation numbers are not just statistics for economists and government agencies to toss around.  The effects are real and are clearly taking their tolls.

This from the Boston Globe this morning

Requests for reduced alimony and child support payments have surged, and the emotional toll of lost jobs, slashed pay, and uncertain futures appears to be driving an increase in other family problems.

“People are increasingly agitated, and it’s incredibly emotional,’’ said Paula M. Carey, chief justice of the Probate and Family Court. “They are out of work, struggling to keep their homes, and all of that takes a toll. Every day, in every court, you can see it.’’

The same economic turmoil that has prompted more families to seek judicial relief has also made courts less equipped to provide it. Steep budget cuts have left the family courts roughly 40 percent understaffed. There have been cutbacks in court-appointed guardians and probation officers who try to mediate disputes before they are brought to judges, increasing judges’ caseloads and creating delays. Financial constraints have forced more clients to represent themselves, which has tended to further slow proceedings.

You have to worry about the impact on children and teenagers.

One day last week in Courtroom 2 of Boston’s Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, more than 50 cases came before Judge Joan Armstrong – an unrelenting succession of single mothers pleading for more support, some fathers saying they can’t pay, and couples grimly agreeing their marriages were beyond repair. Some had lawyers with expensive suits and leather briefcases by their side; others stood alone. Most traded accusations. Few found common ground.

Looming over nearly every case was the heavy weight of financial distress, and parent after parent described for the judge an economic situation hanging by a thread. As the day began, stacks of thick folders were piled high on the judge’s desk, and in quick succession a mother won permanent guardianship of her daughter, a 19-year-old with Down syndrome; an elderly woman in a shawl, after gazing imploringly at the ceiling as though for guidance, won her motion to extend by a year a restraining order against her former husband; a woman requested a hearing on reducing her child support payment.

What I really fail to comprehend is the Republican position that we can’t increase the deficit to create jobs and to fund a jobs program.  Don’t they understand that putting people back to work not only helps reduce the stress on them, but also means that they help support the economy by paying taxes?  Putting funds into the Highway Trust Fund and other transportation projects as my congressman, Mike Capuano, has proposed would allow states to proceed with infrastructure programs and hire people.  The current stimulus programs are a start, but much more is needed.

More than half of the nation’s unemployed workers have borrowed money from friends or relatives since losing their jobs. An equal number have cut back on doctor visits or medical treatments because they are out of work.

Almost half have suffered from depression or anxiety. About 4 in 10 parents have noticed behavioral changes in their children that they attribute to their difficulties in finding work.

Joblessness has wreaked financial and emotional havoc on the lives of many of those out of work, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll of unemployed adults, causing major life changes, mental health issues and trouble maintaining even basic necessities.

These are the results of a new poll announced today in the New York Times.

With unemployment driving foreclosures nationwide, a quarter of those polled said they had either lost their home or been threatened with foreclosure or eviction for not paying their mortgage or rent. About a quarter, like Ms. Newton, have received food stamps. More than half said they had cut back on both luxuries and necessities in their spending. Seven in 10 rated their family’s financial situation as fairly bad or very bad.

But the impact on their lives was not limited to the difficulty in paying bills. Almost half said unemployment had led to more conflicts or arguments with family members and friends; 55 percent have suffered from insomnia.

This graphic illustrates some of the results.

And of course many of the long term unemployed can’t afford health insurance – even the COBRA payments – so they are unable to take care of the health issues resulting from the stress and anxiety creating even more stress. 

Nearly half of respondents said they did not have health insurance, with the vast majority citing job loss as a reason, a notable finding given the tug of war in Congress over a health care overhaul. The poll offered a glimpse of the potential ripple effect of having no coverage. More than half characterized the cost of basic medical care as a hardship.

I realize that the Obama administration is trying to talk banks into lending to small businesses which create jobs, but without a real public jobs program to put people to work so they can begin spending and paying taxes I am afraid that foreclosures will continue increase, domestic violence will rise,  and the overall level of violence will continue to increase.

One very interesting result of the poll was who got the blame.

In terms of casting blame for the high unemployment rate, 26 percent of unemployed adults cited former President George W. Bush; 12 percent pointed the finger at banks; 8 percent highlighted jobs going overseas and the same number blamed politicians. Only 3 percent blamed President Obama.

Those out of work were split, however, on the president’s handling of job creation, with 47 percent expressing approval and 44 percent disapproval.

The Republicans may seem to have forgotten who allowed the economic crisis to happen, but it appears that the unemployed have not.  But clearly, the Obama administration and Congress need to act quickly.