WASHINGTON – The American economy and job market are moving in the right direction, just not very quickly. The news Friday that U.S. employers added a solid 165,000 jobs in April and unemployment fell to a four-year low of 7.5 percent came as a relief.
The Dow Jones industrial average surged 142 points, or 1 percent, on the news to close at a record 14,973. The better-than-expected April numbers erased worries that the U.S. economy was stalling for the fourth year in a row – a fear that had emerged after a disappointing jobs report for March. Friday’s report also showed job growth in March and February was stronger than first estimated.
Nearly four years after a devastating recession, the U.S. economy and job market are far from a full recovery, but they have made steady progress. Here is an overview of America’s economic health:
Hiring: Picking up but facing a long slog
The U.S. economy has been adding 196,000 jobs a month this year, up from a monthly average of 179,000 in 2011 and 2012. Given how far it needs to go, the job market is recovering more slowly than people had hoped. The U.S. still has 2.6 million fewer jobs than it had when the Great Recession began in December 2007. At the current pace of hiring, total U.S. jobs won’t reach the pre-recession level of 138 million for more than one year.
Account for population growth, and the jobs ditch is even deeper: Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, says the economy needs to add 8.6 million jobs, not 2.6 million, to keep up with a rising population.
Unemployment: Falling – but still high
Unemployment has improved dramatically since peaking at 10 percent in October 2009. But by any normal standard, April’s 7.5 percent unemployment was still a recession-level figure – higher than it ever got in the short recession of 2001. The Federal Reserve doesn’t expect the unemployment rate to reach a healthy level – 6 percent or lower – any sooner than 2015.
At least unemployment fell last month from 7.6 percent in March for the right reasons: More Americans reported having jobs and fewer reported being unemployed.
A big part of the drop in unemployment the past 3½ years has come because people have given up looking for work. Only 63.3 percent of working-age Americans were working or looking for work last month and in March. That is the lowest “labor force participation rate” since May 1979. People without a job who stop looking for one are no longer counted as unemployed. If the participation rate were at the pre-recession level of 66 percent, the unemployment rate could have reached 11.3 percent last month.
The economy: Growing slowly
The economic recovery from the Great Recession is the slowest since World War II. Growth has been hobbled by lingering damage from a housing bust and financial crisis. The economy expanded just 2.4 percent in 2010, 1.8 percent in 2011 and 2.2 percent in 2012. It grew at an annual pace of 2.5 percent in the January-March quarter this year.
If the economy were healthy, 2.5 percent growth would be fine. But generating enough jobs to bring unemployment down quickly requires faster growth. Economists hoped the economy would expand at a brisk pace this year – 3 percent or 4 percent. But across-the-board government spending cuts, which took effect March 1, are forcing federal agencies to furlough workers, reducing spending on public projects and making businesses nervous about investing and hiring.
Growth is expected to slow to 2 percent in the April-June quarter.
Budget cuts have already been a drag on the economy. Government spending at the local, state and federal levels fell at an annual rate of 4.1 percent from January through March and 7 percent the last three months of 2012. Normally, government spending contributes to economic recoveries.
The damage from government austerity has been offset in part by the Federal Reserve, which has kept short-term interest rates near zero since the end of 2008 and has been pumping $85 billion a month into the economy by buying bonds.
—CONSUMERS, HOUSING AND THE STOCK MARKET: LOOKING UP
Some of the U.S. economy’s fundamentals are looking healthier.
Consumers have shrugged off an increase in their Social Security taxes this year and the budget shenanigans in Washington: From January through March, they spent at the strongest pace in two years. That’s good news because consumers account for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.
Fueled by near-record low mortgage rates, the housing market has been bouncing back. New-home sales in March were up 18.5 percent from a year earlier. Sales of previously occupied homes were up 10.3 percent. For the first time in five years, homebuilders started work on more than 1 million homes in March at a seasonally adjusted annual rate.
Investors have celebrated rising corporate profits and other good news. The Dow Jones industrial average is up 1,870 points, or more than 14 percent, so far this year, including Friday’s gain.
Rising stock and home prices help feed consumer spending by making people feel wealthier and more willing to spend.
—EUROPE: MAKING THE U.S. ECONOMY LOOK GOOD
The American economy and job market look a lot better when you compare them with Europe’s. Across the Atlantic, governments have been cutting spending and raising taxes even more aggressively. The 17 European Union countries that use the euro currency slid back into recession in the fall of 2011 and have been stuck there since.
Eurozone unemployment hit a record 12.1 percent in March, reaching 27.2 percent in Greece and 26.7 percent in Spain.