Job Losses Could Drown Stimulus

People across the country search for jobs as, for the first time on record, all 50 states report increased unemployment rates.
[Monthly change in non-farm employment]
By Neil Irwin and Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 7, 2009

The nation is losing jobs so quickly that the government, racing to deal with the crisis, is having trouble keeping up.

The U.S. unemployment rate last month leapt half a percentage point, to 8.1 percent, the highest level since 1983, according to data released yesterday. The stunning pace of job losses raises the possibility that, perhaps as early as this summer, one in 10 Americans will be out of a job even though they are actively looking for work. It also means that the government faces even more pressure to take further action to stabilize the economy and the financial system.

President Obama, speaking in Columbus, Ohio, to police cadets whose jobs were saved with money from the $787 billion stimulus package, called the new unemployment figures "astounding."

"We have a responsibility to act," he said, "and that's what I intend to do."

Analysts increasingly view the administration's actions so far as insufficient given the scope of the problem. The stimulus package was designed to "save or create" 3.5 million jobs, according to the administration. But the nation has already lost 4.4 million jobs since the start of the recession. Many banks and other financial institutions, whose health is critical to the economy, are teetering, and the Treasury Department has yet to finalize the details of its plans to remove from their balance sheets the toxic assets dragging them down.

"It's premature to say we need another stimulus, but the economy is performing much worse than when [the law] was signed, and the odds are increasing that we'll need a bigger policy response," said Mark Zandi of Moody's, who has advised Democratic lawmakers. "What we've learned is policy has been a step behind this whole downturn. It's important to get a step ahead."

The International Monetary Fund yesterday urged governments worldwide to consider additional fiscal stimulus, noting that the public sector must help prevent a collapse of confidence.

Consumer confidence in the U.S. economy has already been driven dangerously low by layoffs across nearly every sector. Last month alone, employers slashed 651,000 jobs from their payrolls, and job losses in December and January were far worse than originally reported, according to revised data released yesterday. Since December, employers have cut jobs at the sharpest pace since 1975.

But even the current job-loss figures mask the degree of pain among American workers. A broader measure, which includes people who want a job and have given up looking and those working part time but who want full-time work, rose nearly one percentage point, to 14.8 percent.

"I think what it shows is neither the government nor many economists have a grasp yet of how bad the economy really is right now," said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group. "We can't get our arms around what's going on."

There is little reason to think conditions for workers will get better in the coming months and many reasons to think the steep decline will continue; employment tends to lag behind overall growth in the economy by several months, and the nation, by all accounts, remains in recession. There have been some signs lately that consumer spending is stabilizing at low levels, but even if that trend holds up, it would probably take until summer for job losses to slow.

Economists are now calling into question whether the intricate suite of policies crafted by Congress, the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve are bold enough to deal with the scope of the economic damage.

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