Jared Bernstein is an economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He was formerly chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economics team.
It's not easy being young today. While America moves through an economic recovery, young workers are being left behind. And that's largely because, since the recovery officially began in November 2001, employment is down by more than a million. Of the 10 economic expansions since World War II, this is the first in which jobs have taken so long to appear. And among those hurting the most, in terms of employment and wages, are young people in the early stages of their careers. This is true among low-wage earners, who commonly suffer when the economy slows down. But it's also true among young, white-collar adults, who have been relatively immune to other slowdowns.
It was my misfortune to tune in to the Sunday talk shows last
weekend, when Treasury Secretary John Snow was making the
rounds in support of the administration's tax-cut plan.
Listening to Snow defend this misguided policy was deeply
disheartening. You expect spin -- that's what the Sunday morning
circuit has come to be about. But with the stakes so high and
the costs of getting it wrong so steep, the secretary's interviews were painful to watch.
This administration is fixated on shrinking government even if it
means consigning the living standards of millions of working families
to years of stagnation. Snow's performance showed that George W. Bush's henchmen will say
anything to make their case.
The problem of poverty in America looms large even in the best of times. The most recent economic boom got the share of those officially deemed poor down to 11.7 percent, or about 33 million persons, but poverty rates are much higher for economically vulnerable groups such as single mothers, African Americans and Hispanics. Advocates of savings incentives and other asset-building programs for the poor convincingly and passionately make the case that while low incomes are the proximate cause of poverty at any point in time, the inability to accumulate wealth is what keeps people and their families stuck in poverty for generations.
Newly released data on income and poverty suggest that the recent economic downturn hit lower-income families disproportionately. The latest Census Bureau report found that poverty began rising and median family income started falling in 2001, confirming what many of us have always known: The key to improved living standards for the bottom half was, and is, full employment.
After tumbling through the latter half of the 1990s, the unemployment rate hit a 30-year low of 4 percent in 2000. With the onset of recession, it reversed course and climbed to 4.8 percent in 2001.
In 2002 Congress will revisit Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), often known as welfare reform. Many progressives, ourselves included, fought hard against the program that passed in 1996. We judged it too punitive and too far from the spirit of progressive reform, which would have focused less on reducing caseloads and more on both promoting employment and improving the well-being of low-income families with children. We worried that the low-wage labor market, which had been deteriorating for decades, provided little opportunity for families forced to leave public assistance.