As we approach the end of the year, it is customary to reflect back on the past year. Economically this has been a year of slow recovery. It doesn’t feel much like recovery though. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) declared that the recession ended in June of 2009. Since then, we have been experiencing what is euphemistically called a jobless recovery.
Since the end of the recession, the stock market has risen by 30%, but our unemployment rate has risen by 3%. In other words, those who make their living from investments in the stock market did very, very well, but those who depend on a job to earn a living didn’t do so well. This has become fairly standard in our economy. According to last year’s census, the income gap between the rich and poor grew to its highest level in history. The gap is about double what it was in 1968. Today, the richest 20% in America makes 50% of the money.
We’ve seen these jobless recoveries before. In fact every recovery we’ve seen in the past quarter of a century have been so-called jobless recoveries. The last recession we saw that hasn’t been labelled as such was between July 1981 and November 1982.
I can’t help but think that this phenomenon is something we have inherited from the Reagan revolution. I’ll never forget his penchant for selling policy by retelling suburban legends about the sloth of poor people, straight out of the Reader’s Digest. We can thank him for the pejorative, “Welfare Queen,” and I think we can thank him for arguments we here today about how cutting off funds from the poor is tough love to help them kick the habit of public assistance.
Such arguments are easily digested by those suburbanites who have never met anyone on food stamps. It helps them swallow their guilt about lining their own pockets with tax breaks while they cut off food and shelter to those in need. Of course they need strong medicine to relieve their Christian conviction. Jesus had the nasty habit of insisting that we help the poor rather than worry about what sins we perceive they’ve committed.