National Economic Trends

Most people believe that the U.S. has been suffering through an economic downturn since September 11, 2001. However, according to economic researchers, the current labor market recession actually began in October 2000.

Those being hit the hardest from this poor economy: low-income workers, particularly minorities and women.

A report published by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), entitled “The State of Working America 2002-2003,” compares the country’s prosperous economy of the 1990s to today’s dismal situation, and finds that while Americans are now working longer hours—surpassing workers in every other industrially-developed country—the overall wage growth among lower-wage workers has significantly slowed.

Meanwhile, the percentage of indebtedness incurred by Americans in the past year has increased—due largely to increased need and/or remarkably low interest rates.

Myvesta, a consumer credit counseling service, reported on November 26 that, over the past 12 months, American adults increased their charge-card indebtedness by 35%. The typical individual credit card holder owes $3,250, up from $2,411 last year. Of those seeking financial counseling from Myvesta, average credit card indebtedness has increased from $30,000 last year to $48,195 this year.

These developments are largely invisible, masked by a low reported national unemployment rate of 5.7%, when contrasted to the average of 6.4% in the years from 1967 to 1995. These figures include part-time workers and military personnel; they do not include those who have been out of work so long they have lost unemployment insurance benefits, nor do they include those who are underemployed.

Economists who study employment trends look to the past in order to predict future outcomes. This time is different. For example, in 1979, job growth increased following a 24-month period of recession. Today, following the same 24-month interval, there has been little growth. Also, during the 1980s, lower-skilled workers with less than a high school education were affected most by unemployment. As of 2000, the distribution of unemployment is roughly equal among those with high school diplomas, those with some college, and college graduates.

—Russ Henley   

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This story was published on December 4, 2002.