As the late, great comedian Rodney Dangerfield might have said, this current U.S. economic recovery “don’t get no respect,” and dissing it seems to grow ever more popular. Long derided as historically slow, and marked by marginal wage increases and lousy productivity, it’s now coming under fire for being shockingly uneven as well, confined to a handful of (admittedly huge) urban islands of prosperity like New York City and Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area.
This morning came worse news – the gap between haves and have-nots is getting wider, at least when it comes to unemployment rates. This depressing conclusion – after nearly nine years of economic expansion – stems from the latest Labor Department data (for April) on joblessness and how it’s changed in 387 American urban areas.
But let’s start at the beginning (of the recovery). In June, 2009, unemployment rates rose year-on-year in all 372 of the metro areas then measured. So there was literally no place to go but up. But by February, 2010 – when the number of total American job-holders bottomed in absolute terms – unemployment rates were still increasing on an annual basis in 347 of these areas and falling in only 21.
This April, the situation was greatly improved. Unemployment rates dropped in 269 metropolitan areas and were up in only 94. (By now, the number of urban areas tracked has risen to 387.) But here’s the rub. The previous April, jobless rates were down in 344 areas and up in 36. In April, 2014, the numbers looked even better – down in 357, up in a mere 12. (In some areas, the rates haven’t changed.)
An optimist (or an Obama-phile) could argue that progress in cutting unemployment is slowing because the rate has already come down so dramatically during the recovery. And indeed it has – from the most recent peak of ten percent in October, 2009 to five percent in April. So clearly, there isn’t much more to go until any reasonable definition of full employment (which BTW, isn’t hard and fast).
At the same time, as RealityChek has reported so often, other measures of the employment scene, like wage and broader pay growth, still look pretty shaky. And heading into its eighth year, the recovery is looking pretty long in the tooth. The economy has so far displayed the ability to generate more impressive employment than growth results (hence, in a nutshell, the crummy productivity improvement), so it’s entirely possible that even when the recovery peters out, the number of jobs can keep increasing. Therefore,however unsatisfactory the geography of prosperity these days, it may not get significantly worse for the time being.
But that’s likely a best case. If today’s growth shifts into reverse to any meaningful degree, America’s islands of prosperity could become even harder to find on a map.