What Today’s Job Numbers Mean

The economy added only 120,000 jobs in March – down from the rate of more than 200,000 in each of the preceding three months. The rate of unemployment dropped from 8.3 to 8.2 percent mainly because fewer people were searching for jobs – and that rate depends on how many people are actively looking.

It’s way too early to conclude the jobs recovery is stalling, but there’s reason for concern.

Remember: Consumer spending is 70 percent of the economy. Employers won’t hire without enough sales to justify the additional hires. It’s up to consumers to make it worth their while.

But real spending (adjusted to remove price changes) this year hasn’t been going anywhere. It increased just .5 percent in February after an anemic .2 percent increase in January.

The reason consumers aren’t spending more is they don’t have the money. Personal income was up just .2 percent in February – barely enough to keep up with inflation. As a result, personal saving as a percent of disposable income tumbled to 3.7 percent in February from 4.3 percent in January.

Personal saving is now at its lowest level since March 2009.

American consumers, in short, are hitting a wall. They don’t dare save much less because their jobs are still insecure. They can’t borrow much more. Their home values are still dropping, and many are underwater – owing more on their homes than the homes are worth.

The economy has been growing but almost all the gains have gone to the very top. As I’ve noted, this is the most lopsided recovery on record.

You will hear other theories about the hiring slowdown, but they don’t wash.

It’s not due to “uncertainty” about the economy. That’s a tautology – the economy’s future is always uncertain, especially when consumers don’t have the dough to keep it going.

It’s not because of fears about a European recession. Europe has been in the skids for some time now. Besides, the American economy doesn’t really depend on exports to Europe.

And it’s not about gas prices or the rise in healthcare insurance premiums. Both are up, but they’ve been trending up for many months.

It’s because consumers’ pockets are almost empty.

We’ll avoid a double-dip, but the most likely scenario in coming months is a continuation of the same – an anemic jobs recovery.

President Obama will claim the economy is improving – and, technically, it is. Growth this year will most likely average around 2 percent. The problem is, most Americans aren’t feeling it in their paychecks.

Mitt Romney will claim the economy is in terrible shape – and there will be enough evidence to justify his “cup-half-empty” rhetoric.

But when it comes to explaining what’s really wrong with the economy, Romney is the perfect foil for Obama because Romney represents the richest of the rich – a man who raked in more than $20 million last year, and paid a tax rate of just 13.9 percent (lower than much of the middle class).

He made that money by buying up “under-performing” companies – that is, companies that employed more people than they needed to, and carried less debt than was necessary to show big profits (interest on debt is deductible from company income). Romney’s firm, Bain Capital, made him and his colleagues fortunes by firing workers and loading companies up with debt.

And there’s America’s economic problem in a nutshell.

Romney and his ilk are doing wonderfully well, but the rest of the nation is still in deep trouble. Yet the U.S. economy can’t fully recover on the spending of millionaires.

The President has already announced that this election is about America’s surge toward ever-greater inequality. He’s right. And this painful recovery shows it.

It would be sadly ironic if Obama lost the election because the economy responded to widening inequality exactly as expected.

This post originally appeared at Robert Reich’s Blog and is posted with permission.

4 Responses to "What Today’s Job Numbers Mean"

  1. SBG   April 9, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Once again bashing Romney for what he did in his corporate life has no bearing on his economic policies in the larger econogmy (ie Massachusetts) and reflects an inability of the author to reasonably evalute Romney's larger policies. The focus on inequality has nothing to do with development of a robust economy and instead reflects a social planning desire. Many of us beleive that efforts to solve inequality have resulted in the type of economic problems reflected in today's Europe. Reich should represent a better economist that this.

    • R. Coutinho   April 9, 2012 at 10:44 am

      The problem with Romney's approach is that (ala Paul Ryan's budget) he plans to tax the rich even less while gutting safety nets for the poor, elderly and disabled. That will be an excellent policy for eliminating the middle class and concentrating all the rest of the wealth at the top 0.5%.

      If that is one's objective, then Romney would be a good choice (assuming that the rabble do not start marching on Wall Street with pitchforks and nooses). I happen to believe that for the sake of the country, it would be far wiser to have the very wealthy throw the peasantry a few more loaves of bread and maybe a bandage or two.

  2. R A F   April 9, 2012 at 9:22 am

    THE VERY LAST MOVE FOR DISASTER IS MORE SPENDING WITH NO ECONOMIC GAIN……….WE DO REQUIRE A STRNG NEW APPROACH………R A F