Far From Over (New York Times)


It's a measure of just how terrible the economy has become that a loss of more than a half-million jobs in just one month can be widely seen as a good sign. The house is still burning down, but not quite as fast.

I can understand why people are relieved that we no longer seem to be hurtling toward a depression, but beyond that I see very little to be happy about.

The economy is in shambles. Nearly 540,000 jobs were lost in April, a horrifying number. The unemployment rate rose to 8.9 percent. Even the most optimistic observers expect the job losses to continue, although, hopefully, at a slower pace. The unemployment rate is expected to keep on climbing, like some monster from the movies, toward double digits.

We are stuck in what is — or will soon be — the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Newspapers and the U.S. auto industry are on life support. The employment picture for even the most well-educated Americans — men and women with four-year college degrees or higher — is the worst on record.

If there is something about this economy to be cheerful about — something real — I wish someone would let me know.

Poverty and homelessness are increasing and, as Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, said during an interview this week, "There are a whole lot of people who are going to be economically desperate for many years."

Joblessness is like a cancer in the society. The last thing in the world that you want is for it to metastasize. And that's what's happening now. Don't tell me about the stock market. Don't tell me about the banks and their perpetual flimflammery. Tell me whether poor and middle-income families can find work. If they can't, the country's in trouble.

One reason the employment losses slowed somewhat in April was that the government added 72,000 jobs, most of them temporary hires as part of the preparation for the 2010 Census. The private sector dumped 611,000 jobs. Moreover, the Labor Department revised the job losses for March upward, from 663,000 to 699,000, and for February, from 651,000 to 681,000. Some 5.7 million jobs have been lost since the start of the recession in December 2007.

Mr. Mishel has been trying to call attention to the human toll caused by job losses on this vast scale. The institute estimates that the poverty rate for children is in danger of increasing from 18 percent, which is where it was in 2007, the last year for which complete statistics are available, to a scary 27.3 percent in 2010.

For black children, you don't want to know. But I'll tell you anyway. The poverty rate for black kids was 34.5 percent in 2007. If the national unemployment rate rises, as expected, to the vicinity of 10 percent next year, the poverty rate for black children would rise to 50 percent or higher, analysts at the institute believe.

That would be a profound tragedy.

We already know that children are being harmed in families hammered by job losses, home foreclosures and the myriad stresses that grip families trying to cope with economic reversals. Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund and a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, has referred to these youngsters as the "recession generation," and has described what is happening to them as "a quiet disaster."

Much of the impact of the Obama administration's economic stimulus efforts is still to come, but those efforts were never narrowly focused on the need for job creation and are not nearly large enough to cope with the mammoth job losses that are occurring. The official unemployment rate for men is already at 9.4 percent, and for black workers 15 percent.

To get a sense of the task ahead, consider that 7.8 million jobs would have to be created just to bring us back to where we were when the recession began. That's because the working-age population has continued to grow since then. The economy has to create about 127,000 jobs a month just to keep up with population growth. That comes to more than 2 million jobs since the start of the recession, which you then add to the 5.7 million that have been lost.

There is no light yet at the end of this tunnel.

It may not be popular, and it certainly won't sit well with the so-called deficit hawks in Congress, but there is a real need for additional government spending to further stimulate the economy and create jobs. (Think infrastructure, among other things.) The kind of employment distress we're confronting is not sustainable. Help will be needed for people whose unemployment benefits run out, who are ill but not covered by medical insurance, who are homeless or otherwise in desperate economic straits.

This crisis is far from over.