Skip to main content

To most Americans, it doesn't feel like an economic recovery

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 5:00 PM EDT, Mon April 9, 2012
 A job seeker holds an employment application during a job fair last month in San Francisco.
A job seeker holds an employment application during a job fair last month in San Francisco.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Friday's weak jobs report is a sign of America's economic future
  • Frum says we are many years away from regaining all jobs lost in the recession
  • Most Americans are seeing their economic future changed for the worse, he says
  • Frum: Politicians in both parties will find it hard to adopt policies to reinvigorate economy

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002 and is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again."

(CNN) -- Friday's weak jobs report is more than a disappointing blip.

It is a glimpse ahead of our disappointing future.

Nearly three years from the beginning of the economic recovery in the summer of 2009, the U.S. economy has replaced not even half the jobs lost in the slump of 2007-2009. At the current pace of job creation, it will take until 2017 to replace all the jobs lost.

But of course the population has grown since 2007, so "replacement" is not good enough. We are even further away from equaling the employment rate of 2007 -- the proportion of the working-age population at work.

David Frum
David Frum

Even when (or if) full job recovery does come, it will not restore the economy of 2007 just as it was.

Recessions reshape economies.

DNC chair: GOP wants bad economy
Arguments for, against economic recovery
Jobs report weaker than expected

The best book written about the social effects of the Great Recession is Don Peck's "Pinched."

Peck shows us a new world emerging from the catastrophe of 2008, a new world that most Americans will find harsher than the old.

For example: Despite the long, slow relative decline of manufacturing as a source of American jobs, the total number of manufacturing jobs in the United States had remained constant at about 18 million for decades. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of manufacturing jobs dropped by 6 million.

While manufacturing is beginning a recovery now, it seems impossible that the sector will regenerate to anything like its former extent.

The new jobs being added to the U.S. economy pay less, on average, than the jobs lost -- which is why the average rate of pay in the United States remains stagnant or even drops as the number of jobs slowly grows.

At the top of the economic heap, recovery has been more complete. The richest Americans suffered sharp shocks to their wealth when markets collapsed in 2008-2009. As financial markets have revived, so has the wealth of the top 1% (households earning more than $380,000 per year.)

The top 5% have done OK, too. (The top 5% begins a little south of $200,000 in household income.)

For most of the country, however, the outlook is -- to borrow Peck's title -- "pinched." Young people who come of age in the crisis will earn less through their lives than those who came of age during happier times. Marriages break up. Babies are not born. A sense of unfairness spreads through the society. Politics becomes angrier and more paranoid -- for those who take part -- while many others drop out of public life entirely, disregarded and alienated.

The country's political class tends to discuss these hard economic and cultural facts as if they were interesting only in relation to the presidential race, as if the only questions that mattered about economics were: "Good for Obama?" "Bad for Obama?"

For most of the country, however, Barack Obama is a flickering electronic image, an only intermittently interesting distraction from the realities of life: stagnant pay, unattractive job options, darkening retirement prospects for the middle-aged and narrowing opportunities for the young.

What would it take to do better? The answer, ironically, will be nearly equally difficult (but in very different ways) for politicians of either party.

To do better, we'll need a program to stimulate employment for the long-term unemployed -- including potentially a New Deal-style requirement that nobody receive benefits without working. It's no good to anybody -- the unemployed least of all -- to allow the unemployed to collect two years' worth of benefits while waiting at home, their skills atrophying, their resumes going stale.

To do better, we may need to induce employers to create jobs, not only through tax cuts but through direct subsidies, including subsidies of the cost of health coverage. (Especially for older workers, health costs can be more of a deterrent to hiring even than the cost of wages.)

We will need to curtail the generosity of Medicare to open fiscal room for government programs to support opportunities for the young.

We will need a permissive monetary policy that accepts moderate inflation to reduce the burden of mortgages and other debts -- even if it bites a little into savings and fixed incomes.

We'll need above all to recognize the magnitude of the social distress we still face, even as the economic statistics tell us of a recovery that moves financial markets and presidential polls -- but that threatens to bypass tens of millions of Americans for months and years.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNN Opinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Sat September 13, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 6:12 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
updated 1:05 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
updated 12:55 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
updated 3:32 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
updated 1:59 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
updated 8:41 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT