The good: Initial jobless claims last week were at their lowest level in three and a half years, back to May 2008, before the financial panic hit and before the recession had been declared. The four-week average is at its lowest level since July 2008. Last week’s number still looks high (366,000), but keep in mind that even in good times the number is usually over 300,000 — layoffs are a regular feature of the U.S. labor market. It should also be noted that unlike the recent drop in the official unemployment rate (from 9.0% to 8.6%), this improvement is not mostly an artifact of unemployment people giving up on their job search and dropping out of the labor force. These are initial claims for unemployment insurance, by people who previously were working. So if this number is down, then either there were fewer layoffs or (less likely, I’d think) fewer laid-off workers bothered to apply for unemployment insurance.
The bad: Nearly half of Americans (48%) are either poor or near-poor, according to new Census data. That includes 49 million who are classified as living in poverty, plus 97 million who are classified as “near poor,” defined as having an income between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty line. Once upon a time many people would dismiss Census poverty data by noting that they failed to include government welfare spending and other anti-poverty tax and transfer policies, and also failed to adjust for the huge variation in the cost of living in different regions of the nation. But the new figures reflect the recently revised Census methodology, which answers those objections. One might also object that the low-income threshold is actually quite high — $45,000 for a family of four — but I would guess that the objectors have not tried to support a family of four on that amount lately. The AP article quotes Robert Rector* of the Heritage Foundation with the old conservative argument that many of these people have TV’s, cars, and houses, ergo they’re not really materially deprived, but I think he’s missing a couple things:
- Poverty is a relative measure as well as an absolute measure. Yes, $45,000 would have been opulence for, say, a family in colonial America (which apparently had the highest standard of living in the world at the time). But colonial families grew their own food, spun their own cloth, and were otherwise generally self-sufficient. Also, yesterday’s luxuries often become today’s necessities. For example, two decades ago I spent about $25 a month to stay connected, in the form of basic landline service. Today, staying connected costs me about $350 a month, for cable TV and Internet, cellphone, etc. You can live without all those things, but when everyone around you has them, you will know deprivation. Just because it’s a social construct doesn’t mean it’s bogus.
- The burden of consumer debt: Entering the recession, consumer debt was at an all-time high relative to income. Household debt service payments averaged 14% of income and about 28% for renters. Since the recession began, many households are obviously much poorer and finding it much harder to make those payments. Many have, of course, not merely fallen behind but lost their houses and other collateral. The overall debt-service-to-income statistics show that households are successfully deleveraging,with the number down to 11%, but the average surely hides a lot of variation. I expect debt is weighing very, very heavily on most near-poor households — those that still have their houses, that is.
When members of a household are unemployed or underemployed, they are probably just barely keeping up with the living standards of the community or even their own living standards of a couple months or years ago. It’s gotta be painful. Pundits and politicians ignore that reality at their own peril.
(*Also the same person from whom I first heard the suggestion that government policy on poverty should be based on the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “That if any would not work, neither should he eat.” I last heard it from Michele Bachmann.)