June 2011

Christian E. Weller on the State of the Economy

Download the snapshot (pdf)

Read the snapshot in your web browser

The debate over federal taxes and spending has moved front and center as Republicans are threatening not to raise the federal debt ceiling unless programs are aggressively cut back. Keeping the debt ceiling in place could lower growth, slow job creation, and damage already depressed housing wealth levels, particularly home equity.

Recent data on the labor and housing market show how fragile the recovery remains. It is crucial that policymakers secure the gains of the recovery instead of gambling with the economic security of America’s middle class. This means maintaining consumption and investment growth in the short run and addressing trade and budget deficits in the medium term.

The current negotiations over future budgets and the debt ceiling thus need to find a growth-enhancing balance between spending and revenue changes that does not unduly burden middle-class families, who have already suffered from the economic fallout of the Great Recession.

1. The U.S. economy continues a moderate recovery. Gross domestic product, or GDP, grew at an annual rate of 1.9 percent in the first quarter of 2011, the seventh quarter of positive growth in a row. Consumption grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent, and year-over-year business investment growth was 9.1 percent in the first quarter of 2011. Both consumption and investment slowed from their growth rates at the end of 2010 as the economy struggled with higher oil prices. (see Figure 1)

chart 1

2. The trade deficit stays high. The U.S. trade deficit stood at 3.7 percent of GDP in the first quarter of 2011, up from 3.3 percent of GDP in the fourth quarter of 2010. U.S. export growth stayed strong in the first quarter of 2011, increasing 7.6 percent, compared to an increase of 8.6 percent at the end of 2010. But U.S. import growth accelerated to 5.1 percent in the first quarter of 2011, up from -12.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010.

3. The labor market recovery slowly adds jobs in the private sector. The U.S. economy continuously added private-sector jobs from February 2010 to May 2011 for a total of 2.1 million jobs. This included 83,000 new jobs in April 2011.

4. Unemployment stays high because of a massive jobs hole. There were still 6.9 million fewer jobs in May 2011 than at the start of the recession in December 2007, and the population has also grown since then, putting the labor market deeper into the hole than the raw number suggests. The unemployment rate has hence remained stubbornly high at 9.1 percent in May 2011.

5. Unemployment stays high among the most vulnerable. The African-American unemployment rate in April 2011 rose to 16.2 percent, the Hispanic unemployment rate to 11.9 percent, and the unemployment rate for whites remained steady at 8.0 percent. Youth unemployment stood at a high 24.2 percent. And the unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma climbed to 14.7 percent, compared to 9.5 percent for those with a high school diploma and 4.5 percent for those with a college degree.

6. Rapidly rising oil prices threaten a fledgling recovery. A gallon of regular gasoline cost about $3.80 or more throughout May 2011. This is the highest gasoline price since August 2008. (see Figure 2)

chart 2

7. Employer-provided health insurance benefits continue to disappear. The share of people with employer-provided health insurance dropped from 64.2 percent in 2000 to 55.8 percent in 2009. This is the lowest share since 1987 when the Census started to track these data.

8. Family incomes drop sharply in the recession. Median inflation-adjusted household income fell 3.6 percent in 2008 and by another 0.7 percent in 2009. It stood at $49,777 in 2009, its lowest level in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1997. White family income stood at $54,461, compared to African American family income, which was $32,584, or 59.8 percent of white income. Hispanic family income was $38,039 in 2009, or 69.8 percent of white income.

9. Poverty continues to rise. The poverty rate stood at 14.3 percent in 2009—its highest rate since 1994. The African-American poverty rate was 25.8 percent, the Hispanic rate was 25.3 percent, and the white rate was 9.4 percent in 2009. The poverty rate for children under the age of 18 stood at 20.7 percent. More than one-third of African-American children (35.7 percent) lived in poverty in 2009, compared to 11.9 percent of white children and 33.1 percent of Hispanic children.

10. Family wealth losses linger. Total family wealth was down $12.4 trillion (in 2011 dollars) from June 2007—its last peak—to March 2011, despite strong gains in the stock market since early 2009. Home equity stays low, such that homeowners on average still own only 38.1 percent of their homes, with the rest owed to banks. This is the lowest share on record going back to 1952.

11. Debt levels are still high. Total household debt equaled 114.1 percent of aftertax income in March 2011. This is down from a record high of 130.2 percent in September 2007 but still higher than at any point before September 2004.

12. Mortgage troubles stay high. One in eight mortgages is delinquent or in foreclosure. The share of mortgages that were delinquent was 8.3 percent in the first quarter of 2011, and the share of mortgages that were in foreclosure was 4.5 percent. (see Figure 3)

chart 3

13. Families feel the pressure. Credit card defaults amounted to a high 7.2 percent of all credit card debt by the first quarter of 2011—still 70.3 percent above the rate in fourth quarter of 2007, just before the Great Recession started.

Download the snapshot (pdf)

Read the snapshot in your web browser

Dr. Christian E. Weller is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.