In Our View: Economy Gets Better, Slowly

Washington now has more jobs than it did before the Great Recession



t wasn’t cause for a ticker tape parade, but Washington state economists last week announced the passing of a minor milestone. According to officials, the state now has more jobs than it did prior to the Great Recession.

Now, before we break out the streamers and the noisemakers, we defer to a memorable quote from Ronald Reagan, delivered during his first presidential campaign: “Recession is when a neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.” We’ll tack on the punch line, “And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his,” only for entertainment value rather than any current relevance. But the first part of the quote remains pertinent as the country continues to claw its way out of the worst economic downturn in seven decades. Recovery is in the air, yet many people are still hurting economically.

As Ylan Q. Mui of The Washington Post reported last month: “Never in more than 65 years have so many workers been without a job and without a government lifeline.” That is, in part, the result of Congress allowing long-term unemployment benefits to lapse. Typically, somebody who loses a job receives state unemployment benefits for 26 weeks. In 2008, in the midst of the recession, Congress voted to add federal aid for up to 99 weeks, but at the end of 2013 it halted that program. Mitchell Hirsch of the National Employment Law Project said people were “thrust essentially overnight from a situation where they were struggling to make ends meet with their benefits into one where they’re now struggling just to survive.” Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said: “Some people are interpreting the fact that we’re seeing signs of economic recovery as saying, ‘OK, folks are all right.’ That’s just not true.”

The 2014 Economic Report of the President, released Monday, asserted: “The current elevation of the unemployment rate is entirely due to long-term unemployment. . . . The unemployment rate for workers unemployed 27 weeks or more remained higher than at any time prior to the Great Recession.” And Janet Yellen, new chair of the Federal Reserve, has testified before Congress that long-term unemployment is one of the central challenges to the nation’s economy and a sign that the recovery is falling short of its potential.

Yes, many people are still feeling the effects of the recession. But there are, indeed, indications of progress, and the state Employment Security Department reported that Washington’s unemployment rate in January was 6.4 percent. The latest figures suggest that from February 2010 through January 2014, the state added about 193,000 jobs — outpacing the 189,000 that were believed lost from February 2008 through February 2010. Recent job gains were mostly in construction, education, health services and government, but the numbers say that about 222,000 people in the state are still looking for work.

In addition, another lingering problem is what is known as U-6 unemployment, which counts the unemployed plus the underemployed — those who are stuck in part-time jobs or are marginally connected to the labor market. Throughout 2013, Washington’s U-6 average for 2013 was 14.0 percent, slightly above the national average of 13.8 percent.

All of that adds up to a bunch of numbers, which really don’t matter if your neighbor has lost a job or if you have lost one. The good news is that fewer and fewer people are feeling the effects of a recession or a depression, a fact that is evident in Washington’s growing job market. Having more jobs now than at the start of the Great Recession isn’t a sign that all is well, but it’s a step in the right direction.