An important milestone contained in Friday's U.S. jobs report:
This month, for the first time, President Barack Obama can say more Americans are working than were working on the day he took office (using the more reliable figures for seasonably adjusted numbers).
With state and local government payrolls down by 500,000 since January 2009, the president can further say that all of this recovery has taken place in the private sector.
Of course, recovery only to January 2009 levels won't be much of a recovery at all. The great bulk of the private-sector jobs lost in the Great Recession were lost between October 2008 and January 2009, before Obama took office. At the current pace of job creation, it will take close to three more years before total employment recovers to the levels that prevailed in the fall of 2008 -- never mind catch up to population increase from births and immigration.
In this slack labour market, wages are lagging even for those Americans who do have work.
Adjusting for inflation, the average American worker was paid less in February than a year ago -- largely because so many of the newly created jobs are low-wage jobs.
Add those data points together, and you see this image of the future: An American economy characterized by chronic under-employment for years to come.
The U.S. does not offer much in the way of social benefits to the chronically unemployed. In the past, this tough policy made a lot of sense: It pushed the unemployed to take work, any work, rather than depend on social services.
But what if there isn't work, any work?
Right now, there are four job seekers in the U.S. for every job vacancy. That ratio represents an improvement from the nadir of the recession, when there were 5.5 job seekers for every vacancy. But today's 4:1 ratio remains a shocking, unprecedented number. During the fearful recession of 1981-82, the last previous bad U.S. recession, the ratio never exceeded 3:1. In normal times, the ratio hovers a little above 1:1. (During the boom years of the late 1990s, the ratio went into reverse: for every 10 job vacancies, only seven people were looking for work.)
These long-term unemployed subsist on food stamps and extended unemployment benefits. (Normally available only for 17 weeks, unemployment insurance coverage has been temporarily extended to a maximum of 99 weeks.) The older unemployed will try to qualify for a disability pension of some kind. Under the surge of applications, disability judges have become increasingly lenient.
But benefits for the unemployed will come under budgetary pressure as Congress tries to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting the Medicare program for the elderly. The Republican budget plans especially propose large and immediate cuts in food stamps and unemployment insurance coverage.
What will happen to the chronically unemployed in a slack-labour, budget-tightening United States?
The ranks of the hard-core poor will grow, as they are already growing.
The odds of escaping poverty -- already lower in the U.S. than in any other developed country except Britain -- will grow even longer.
Non-professional workers will see their wages continue to decline in real terms, as they declined even during the expansion of the 2000s. (The typical American worker earned less after inflation in 2007 than in the year 2000.)
In 1985, Terry Gilliam released a movie called Brazil, which offered a horrible dystopian vision of a world clogged by bureaucracy. But in quite another way, the next decade of American life looks increasingly Brazilian: an affluent few enjoying all the benefits of economic expansion, while the middle stagnates and poor multiply into greater hopelessness.
The most famous study of America, written by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, depicted a society shaped and dominated by its middle class, everywhere outside the slaveholding south. He saw a society where wealth existed, but where it passed from hand to hand, with no family remaining rich for very long -- and with new leaders constantly emerging from the ranks of the poor.
Americans still quote de Tocqueville for insight. But increasingly, those insights describe the country's past, not its present and future.
This article was previously published in the National Post.
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