Yes, people are worse off than when Obama took office

Aaron Blake indulges in a bit of snark as, apparently, President Obama said,

I can put my record against any leader around the world in terms of digging ourselves out of a terrible, un — almost unprecedented financial crisis. Ronald Reagan used to ask the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” In this case, are you better off than you were in six? And the answer is, the country is definitely better off than we were when I came into office, but now we have to make…[1]

Generally, it seems, people do not feel that they feel better off, as Obama seems to concede. Blake goes on to point out, however, that consumer confidence polls do show more confidence now than in 2008.[2]

That’s damnation by faint praise. Six years ago, we were still plunging downwards. The depth of the recession did not hit, according to the National Bureau of Economic Reporting, until June 2009,[3] just when I graduated with my Master’s degree.

It was not clear, then, that there was even a floor to crash on. I remember taking the garbage out, thinking I’d better put out even a half-full (or less) recycling bin, because I wasn’t sure that there’d be a pick-up the following week. I suspected that complete economic collapse was imminent.

But, as I had told my students, the elites are good at this sort of thing. They’ve managed to patch the economy back together, at least for the better off. “Adjusted for inflation,” explains Paul Krugman, “the income of the top 1 percent rose 31 percent from 2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 percent actually fell 6 percent.”[4]

And none of this takes account of the dismal picture for the long-term unemployed, especially older workers like myself.[5] “About 80 percent [of adults, between 25 and 54],” Binyamin Appelbaum points out, “had jobs at the end of 2007; only 76 percent had jobs at the end of 2013.”[6] Appelbaum is pointing to a specific age bracket for a reason: Some folks try to explain the dismal employment-to-population ratio away with changing demographics—an aging workforce—but it seems that even accounting for this, there is still a shortfall in employment (figure 1).[7]

Fig. 1. Accounting for demographics: A difference of 0.7 percent. Kapon and Tracy, fair use.

As Yves Smith put it,

The duration and severity of unemployment among men in their peak earning years suggests that there is both more suffering than is readily apparent, and that this group is also likely to wind up impoverished in their old age. These men, with their sense of identity often strongly vested in being producers and breadwinners, face a grim future in psychological as well as financial terms. To put it more bluntly, this level of unemployment is suicide futures.[8]

That’s me. It’s a point Blake missed. In fact, a lot of people are worse off than they were when Obama took office. And it’s another reason I’m appalled when my friends suggest I should vote for one set of neoliberals over the other.

Not a chance. I can’t be any more unemployed than I am.

  1. [1]Barack Obama, quoted in Aaron Blake, “President Obama just asked the ‘Are you better off’ question. He might not like the answer,” Washington Post, September 29, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/09/29/obama-just-asked-the-are-you-better-off-question-he-might-not-like-the-answer/
  2. [2]Aaron Blake, “President Obama just asked the ‘Are you better off’ question. He might not like the answer,” Washington Post, September 29, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/09/29/obama-just-asked-the-are-you-better-off-question-he-might-not-like-the-answer/
  3. [3]National Bureau of Economic Research, “Business Cycle Dating Committee,” September 20, 2010, http://www.nber.org/cycles/sept2010.html
  4. [4]Paul Krugman, “Free to Be Hungry,” New York Times, September 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/opinion/krugman-free-to-be-hungry.html
  5. [5]Paul Krugman, “The Unlucky Unemployed,” Truthout, June 5, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/24120-the-unlucky-unemployed; Annie Lowrey, “It’s Still Bad for the Long-Term Unemployed,” New York Times, April 4, 2014, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/its-still-bad-for-the-long-term-unemployed/; Lynn Stuart Parramore, “50 Is the New 65: Older Americans Are Getting Booted from Their Jobs — and Denied New Opportunities,” Alternet, December 22, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/economy/age-discrimination-workplace; Matthew Yglesias, “The Unemployment Rate Is Falling, but the News Is Bad,” Slate, February 7, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2014/02/07/january_jobs_report_bad_news.html; Matthew Yglesias, “Why Yellen and Obama shouldn’t celebrate last week’s jobs numbers,” Vox, May 4, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/5/4/5678060/overreaction-to-good-news-is-the-biggest-risk-to-economic-growth;
  6. [6]Binyamin Appelbaum, “Evaporating Unemployment,” New York Times, February 4, 2014, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/04/evaporating-unemployment/
  7. [7]Samuel Kapon and Joseph Tracy, “A Mis-Leading Labor Market Indicator,” Big Picture, February 4, 2014, http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2014/02/a-mis-leading-labor-market-indicator/
  8. [8]Yves Smith, “Over 1 in 6 Men in Prime Working Years Don’t Have a Job,” Naked Capitalism, February 6, 2014, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2014/02/1-6-men-prime-working-years-dont-job.html

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