Why Aren’t There More Jobs?

Mediocre growth, overly cautious corporations and government cutbacks figure to stifle employment gains until there is some comprehensive economic policy

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Rick Bowmer / AP

Friday’s jobs report was a disappointment even though it showed unemployment falling to the lowest level since shortly after President Obama took office. The trouble is that job creation is abnormally sluggish and nowhere near enough to keep bringing down the unemployment rate.

This is hardly news, of course. For months economists have been talking about a jobless recovery. And they point to certain factors as having contributed to the problem — from the severity of the recent recession to the so-called skills gap, a shortage of workers with the training needed to fill the jobs that are available. These factors do help explain why job losses were so bad in the first place and why the unemployment rate reached 10% in 2009, the highest level since 1983. But they don’t explain why job creation continues to be so weak.

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Employment usually does lag a little bit behind the rebound in GDP that occurs after every recession. (During bad times, companies operate below capacity and, as a result, don’t have to start hiring again until growth has gone on long enough to leave them short-staffed.) But that doesn’t explain the surprising — even shocking — fact that today’s rate of new job creation remains low almost three years into the recovery.

To get back to the level of employment before the recession — replacing the jobs that were lost and also keeping up with natural growth in the workforce — would require more than 300,000 new jobs a month through 2016. In April, by contrast, there were only 115,000. And economists question whether the current U.S. economy is able to create even 150,000 jobs a month, on average — or half the number required.

There are three main reasons that this recovery isn’t generating enough jobs:

1. Overall economic growth has been subpar since this recovery started
Six months after the last recession ended, the U.S. economy began growing at an annual rate of 3.8%, adjusted for inflation. And although it has slowed since then, real growth for the most recent quarter was 2.2%. That may not sound too bad, given that the U.S. economy has averaged about 3.25% after inflation since World War II. But following a recession, there is normally a period of nine to 18 months during which growth is exceptionally high. Within six months after the 1981-82 recession ended, for example, real GDP rebounded at a rate of at least 7% for more than a year. By contrast, the current recovery peaked only half a percentage point above what qualifies as average growth. As a result, there has never been a surge of job creation to make up for the jobs lost during the last recession.

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2. Corporations are not using their profits to hire additional workers
While the overall economy has failed to make up the ground lost during the recession, corporations have recovered nicely. According to a study by researchers at Northeastern University, during the first nine months of the recovery, pretax corporate profits rose by $388 billion while total wages and salaries rose by only $68 billion. Of the total, therefore, corporate profits received 85%. By contrast, in four previous recoveries since 1980, the share going to corporate profits averaged just 19%. As a result, corporate profits are now at their highest level since World War II. But U.S. corporations are just letting their cash pile up — nonfinancial companies in the S&P 500 now have more than $1 trillion on hand, compared with less than $700 billion before the recession started. And to the extent that they are using that cash, it’s to make acquisitions, repurchase stock or raise dividends, not to create lots of new jobs.

3. State and local governments continue to reduce their workforce
While U.S. companies have not made up for all the jobs lost during the recession, they have restored some of them. By contrast, the public sector — especially state and local governments — continues to cut jobs. The result is two steps forward and one step back — net job gains are even smaller than today’s modest economic growth and hesitant corporate spending would justify.

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Much of the reduction in the unemployment rate over the past two years has come from so-called discouraged workers — people who have given up on finding a job or left the workforce for other reasons. And it’s often noted that if the percentage of the population over age 16 who are working or looking for work were the same today as at the end of the recession, the unemployment rate would be in double digits.

Economists may disagree whether the solution to these problems is more short-term stimulus, reductions in long-term spending or higher taxes. The answer is probably all of the above. There’s a case for short-term stimulus, as long as it’s accompanied by a reduction in entitlements and other long-term financial commitments. And more revenue could be raised, as long as it’s done through some sort of comprehensive tax reform. Those things won’t be easy to do politically. But companies won’t open their wallets in an atmosphere of uncertainty, and the public sector can’t stabilize its workforce unless government budgets are closer to balancing. In short, until there is greater clarity and predictability about the economic future, it’s hard to see why the rate of job creation would improve.

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