The report on jobs last week gave encouraging news which underscored an improving economy. The economy added approximately 216,000 new jobs in March — more than analysts had hoped — leading the unemployment rate to dip to 8.8 percent. The gain also marked the 13th consecutive month of job gains. And it came even in the teeth of rising layoffs from state and local governments in response to the pending expiration at midyear of stimulus funds to state governments.
But with the economy still in recovery mode, the report is attended by several apparent caveats. The fall in the jobless rate, for example, owes partly to the fact that the job market is still slow enough to discourage unemployed people who have given up looking for work.
In fact, the labor participation rate shows that just 64.2 percent of adults are in the labor force or looking for work. That’s the lowest rate in 25 years, and it owes mainly to the extreme severity of the economic crash of 2008.
The crash, into the worst recession since the Great Depression, destroyed not just 10-million-plus jobs. It also destroyed such a vast number of businesses that many will not be replaced, because the facilities, employees, brain power, equipment and customer base that formed those closed businesses have all been displaced and dispersed. Consequently, analysts believe it may take up to 10 years to get the rate of employment back to where it was before the crash.
Other measures that dampen the glow of the job gains in March are the average workweek of 34.3 hours, and the average hourly earnings. Both remain below par and unchanged from February. The two figures suggest considerable slack in the workplace, and a consequent lack of pressure to raise wages. They also contradict the common Republican refrain that “business uncertainty” over regulations and taxes is impeding hiring and production. Were that true, it would be easy for employers to expand production by having existing employees work longer hours.
Given both the hope that employment is on the upswing, and the obvious fragility that still attends the economy due to crisis abroad — in Japan’s critical markets, instability over governance and oil prices in the Middle East, and Europe’s expanding sovereign debt crisis — it is a terribly inopportune time for Republicans in Congress and state legislatures to be pushing more cuts in services, public employees’ jobs and benefits to the unemployed.
Republicans are myopically focused on debt, however, when they should be focused on prudent maintenance of programs and stimulus initiatives to keep the economy lubricated. Indeed, it seems that they are ready and willing to thwart the roots of recovery so that they can keep complaining about the bad economy that led to the crash, never mind that it happened under their policies and on their watch in 2008.
The fact is, however, that the Obama administration and his unjustly berated mix of middle-class tax cuts and stimulus has had the economy moving in the right direction for more than a year. If Republicans want to sabotage that, they do so at their own peril.