Week Of Sweet, Sour Economy For Ordinary Americans

The labor market is improving, but Friday's consumer price index news shows that workers' paychecks are not keeping up with limited inflation. Hundreds of people visited NPR's Facebook page to comment on whether things are really getting better. Host Michel Martin and NPR Senior Business Editor Marilyn Geewax sift through the stats and comments.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we take a rare look into the private lives of American Muslim women. A new book, "Love, InshAllah" is causing quite a bit of a stir in Muslim communities. We'll talk about why in a few minutes.

But first, the economy. This week brought some good news for the economy. According to the Labor Department, the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits dropped to its lowest level since March of 2008.

However, while the labor market may be improving, the latest consumer price index news out today shows that American workers' paychecks are not keeping up with even minimal inflation.

We wanted to know what this means for ordinary Americans. So, as we often do, we reached out through our social media networks. And for additional perspective we've called once again NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. And together, we've gone through more than 500 comments posted this week on NPR's Facebook page. And we asked whether things are improving or not. Marilyn, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So, the first thing we wanted to talk about is that the jobless claims number was 348,000. That was announced yesterday. What does that mean?

GEEWAX: Michel, jobs are really the key to the economy. So, economists watch that very closely and there are two important reports that come out. One is each month we find out about the unemployment rate. And in January, we saw that was down to 8.3 percent. Now, that's horrible, in a way. But on the other hand, since it was 9.1 just a few months ago, that was an improvement. So, we're continuing to look for any sign that things are improving.

So, this other measure that's a weekly number, it measures initial jobless claims. That's people who walk into a government office and say I'm unemployed, I need some help. And in a big economy like ours, typically you would expect about 400,000 people each week to file for those initial claims because it's a big economy. There's a lot of churn. People gain jobs, lose jobs. So, 400,000 is the normal spot.

But what we've seen in recent months is it's considerably below that. We've had week after week where things are really looking good. And 348,000, that's a good number. What it suggests is that the economy is moving in the direction we want in terms of job creation. And we've got actually a comment here from Carrie Kylie(ph) in Chicago, Illinois, who told us about her experience.

CARRIE KYLIE: In November, I was laid off and it was very unexpected. It turns out that through my networking and just talking to people, informational interviews, I was able to actually secure a position in the industry that I was looking for at higher pay and better benefits. So, I actually looked at my layoff, even in the down economy, as one of the best things that's happened to me professionally.

MARTIN: Now that is awesome. I'm very happy for her. But, Marilyn, you were also telling us that inflation is low, but so are wages. So, this experience is great, the fact that she's getting higher pay. But you're saying, that's not a typical experience. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

GEEWAX: Well, the labor market right now is very complicated because, on the one hand, there is this good news that I've mentioned that unemployment rate is down, jobless claims are down, but we have more than 12 million people still looking for jobs. So, while there are positions opening up and, as this woman says, Carrie says she's found a job and that's great. That wasn't happening three years ago. We were losing jobs and hardly anyone was finding work.

So, there are success stories out there. But because there's so much competition for jobs, wages are really quite depressed. We had a new report today that showed inflation is relatively tame, but gasoline prices are really painful. They've been shooting up lately. And if your wages aren't rising but the cost of getting to work is higher, it's a squeeze for a lot of workers.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about the role that gas prices are playing in this whole picture. But I still want to emphasize something that you've talked about, the fact that there are still more than 12 million Americans who are unemployed and there are people who are still struggling to find work.

We received this comment from Lisa Wright Willard, who's in New York and she commented on our Facebook page: I am in year two of being unemployed. Officially a part of the long-term unemployed, a status I never thought would belong to me. I was a career professional, an advertising designer for more than 20 years. Now, there is seemingly no work for me. What is next for me?

Marilyn, how common is that experience? Do we know how many people are - who've been unemployed for so long that they're not even necessarily counted in the unemployment numbers?

GEEWAX: These are really record numbers of long term unemployed. It's a very chronic problem, because this downturn, the Great Recession of 2008 and '09, knocked so many people out of work for so long that we really have numbers that we've never seen literally since The Great Depression in the 1930s that people have been out of work this long. And the problem is that the length of unemployment is so long, but the workplace changes so fast, the technology is always changing. It's a race to keep up. Even when you're on the job, you have to constantly retrain yourself. So, that's a tough one.

MARTIN: Good point. We're talking about the economy. My guest is NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax, one of our senior business editors. We're talking about - she's giving us perspective on the unemployment situation. We're also hearing from listeners who responded to our Facebook shout out. Let's listen to this - you were talking about - so there's unemployment but there's also underemployment...

GEEWAX: Underemployment.

MARTIN: ...which is a continuing issue particularly, as you said, in the face of, you know, rising expenses. Here is - let's listen to two comments. The first one is from Nick Azaro(ph) in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

NICK AZARO: There's a coffee shop I work at. A lot of my coworkers - we're all in a similar position where we need to work there. And, of course, that's not necessarily what any of us want to be doing, but that's the kind of boat we're in.

ANNE RAWLINSON: I am really very marginally employed. I work as a substitute teacher, but it's so far and few between that I don't even feel like I'm really employed. I certainly work probably less than 10 hours a week.

MARTIN: The second comment came from Anne Rawlinson(ph). And she, as she told you, is a substitute teacher from Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Marilyn, how do economists describe these folks and their situation? Is this considered - are they considered employed for a statistical purposes even though they're barely making it?

GEEWAX: Yes. They'll - economists will talk about people who are marginally attached to the economy. That is they are working. They're trying to stay in the economy, but they may be dramatically underemployed, working for wages that are far, far less than they would have been making before 2008. But I've got to say to those folks, it's good to keep working because at least you're still in the game. You are getting a paycheck.

And what we're hoping for, I mean, what all economists are certainly wishing for is that this these improvements that we've seen recently in the unemployment rate, the improvement in the initial jobless claims means that maybe these folks who are marginally attached will be able to move up from part-time work into full-work time work.

And it's the skills situation that I was referring to by staying in the workplace, you do show an employer that you show up. You are there on time. You can really build a little bit of a reputation. So, even if you're - you feel like you're underemployed, economists will all tell you it's better to do that than to just completely drop out.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more in the time that we have left about the - I think what a lot of people are interested in is this whole question of whether even though we're seeing these positive signs, whether that positive trajectory will continue. And you've talked about the role that rising gas prices can play in this picture.

GEEWAX: It's very complicated. Right now, it's an uncertain and complicated time, but you can say with some certainty that things are better than they were before six months ago. Though we are moving in the right direction, but how long it will last depends on a couple of things. Probably the biggest factor right now is oil prices. Unfortunately, they've been going up. There's a lot of tension in the Middle East, problems with Iran, so they - economists are really watching that. You know, higher oil prices could really snuff out this recovery.

The other thing is the European debt crisis. There are still some concerns about whether or not Congress will create enough gridlock to derail the economy. There's some worries that although they're fading about China's growth.

So there are things on the horizon to worry about, but there are also things to be excited about. The truth is, the energy sector is booming. You know, if you're living in North Dakota or maybe western Pennsylvania, jobs are opening up. Agriculture's doing well. There are technology success stories. I mean, you see all the news about Facebook. There are people adding jobs there. The auto industry is doing better. Insourcing jobs are coming back from overseas. We saw 50,000 new manufacturing jobs in January.

So, right now, I feel like we're right on the cusp. Things could break really good, or they might break bad. And I think right now what workers need to do is just try to stay in the game, brush up your skills and prove to the world that you can show up, work hard and you're ready for that advancement to get from part-time work to full-time work.

MARTIN: Are there specific areas of the economy that are growing more robustly than others?

GEEWAX: You know, it's really funny that manufacturing is finally making this comeback. But, you know, you look at a place like in Georgia - on the west side of Georgia, there's an IKEA plant that recently opened a $100 million expansion. They're adding workers.

In many auto plants, they're adding third shifts, even. So we are seeing - because of this robust growth in the auto industry - where people really are coming back to work. Is it as much as we'd like? No. But the trend is good.

MARTIN: And, finally, some people look at the stock market to kind of figure out what those folks - what is their kind of prediction or bet on the economy. Is the stock market giving us any clues about what those analysts believe the long term picture is going to be?

GEEWAX: Yes. The stock market is generally viewed as a leading indicator. It sort of tells us what's around the next bend. And, right now, the stock market has been suggesting that better times really are coming.

Again, everyone's worried. There's always all these possible problems on the horizon. But the leading indicators and all of the measures are pointing in the direction of better times.

MARTIN: Marilyn Geewax is NPR's senior business editor - one of our senior business editor. She joined us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. We always benefit from your perspective, Marilyn. Thanks so much for joining us.

GEEWAX: It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: We'd also like to thank those who responded to our Facebook call-out. Keep the comments coming.

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