Is The Economy 'Looking Up' For You?

All week-long NPR will look at parts of the U.S. economy that are beginning to thrive after the economic downturn. Host Michel Martin hears individual stories of economic upturn, along with stories of continued struggles, from listeners and NPR's Senior Business Editor Marilyn Geewax.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, spring is upon us and you might be thinking about planning a trip. Frank Bures decided to go back to Tanzania to make a mountain trek that he had missed 15 years earlier when he was teacher there, but the big surprise that awaited him was how much the lives of his former students had changed for the better. He will tell us more in a few minutes.

But first, we want to tell you about a week long series that begins today on NPR. It's called "Looking Up: Pockets of Economic Strength." Across the network we'll examine the parts of the U.S. economy that are beginning to thrive after the economic downturn. Here to tell us more about this series and the economy is Marilyn Geewax. She is a senior business editor at NPR. She's back with us once again.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us about this series and what you hope we will learn from it.

GEEWAX: Well, Michel, let me just say that if you and I had been having this conversation three years ago, it would have been a simple story to tell. Everything was bad. Unemployment was bad. Profits were bad. Everything was bad.

But today we realize that a lot of things actually are looking up. We found pockets of strength in things like energy, technology, manufacturing, autos especially, and agriculture. So that means these businesses are generating more personal income. That helps boost consumer confidence. In February, we saw retail sales were up and auto sales are terrific. Stock prices have been up.

Now, again, this is wildly uneven. There are nearly 13 million people still looking for work, but you can't just keep looking in the rearview mirror. A lot of things going forward really are looking up.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about the series, though. What are we going to see? Where are we going to go?

GEEWAX: Well, we sent reporters out around the country to talk to some of these folks, so we've heard from farmers, factory workers, high tech workers in Utah, and in many of these cases, in the stories that we'll be telling on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, things really were looking up.

MARTIN: Well, as you might imagine, we decided to shout out to our listeners and see what they had to say about this story, and I just - and we got a number of responses on Facebook and over email and we're just going to play a couple of them for you.

Here is Emily Wassmer(ph) from Rockland, Massachusetts.

EMILY WASSMER: I started to temp last summer in the office of a manufacturing facility in Rockland. I had been working temp jobs for the past year, mostly in retail, and I did not expect to be taken on permanently, but I was hired full time at a great entry level wage about three months ago. Our company is a contractor for other companies that supply parts to General Motors and Boeing, and business here doubled in one recent year. We're not at full capacity, but things are certainly looking up.

MARTIN: You know, I was just thinking about what you just said about manufacturing employment, as showing some signs of real improvement. Durable goods manufacturing. That's some of the things that you were talking about here. Let's play another clip from listener Subhra Roy.

SUBHRA ROY: My family and I live in Hartford, Connecticut, and we eat out every Saturday, so we dine at a local restaurant here - told us a great deal about the economy. During the slump, there were a couple of weekends when there was just us and a few other families eating at these restaurants - and these are not the expensive kind.

And slowly, as things started changing, these same places now have an average wait time of about 15 to 25 minutes, which is similar to what we had before the economic downturn. So I'm sure that says a great deal about the economy.

MARTIN: Subhra's giving us the restaurant index, so what - but I think important to mention - and if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Senior business editor Marilyn Geewax is with us and she's talking about NPR's week-long series called "Looking Up: Pockets of Economic Strength."

Interested in your take on what Subhra had to say. The restaurant index, is that kind of a leading indicator? And also, you know, we have to be fair and say what's not so rosy.

GEEWAX: Well, in the leisure and hospitality area, we just got this new report on Friday. The Labor Department told us about what happened in February, and what we're finding is that since two years ago in February - exactly two years ago - we've added more than a half a million jobs in restaurants. That's because people are going out again. Leisure, hospitality, tourism - those things are - really are looking up.

And the person before that, talking about manufacturing - again, we've seen jobs being added at a really good clip in manufacturing, which is a refreshing change from what we saw a few years ago. Just in February, 31,000 jobs were added in manufacturing.

Now, are we going to get back to where we were before the recession? No. I don't see that happening because so much new technology has come on that a lot of employers are using fewer workers to have the same output, but people are coming back, especially in auto suppliers. Auto plants are putting on third shifts. These manufacturing jobs haven't been looking up for years and at last they are.

MARTIN: How big of a problem - how big of a concern are gas prices? I mean, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that the public certainly is not happy about gas prices. I'm not sure you needed a poll to tell you that, but is that - are gas prices a big concern for the recovery, that this might just put the kibosh on the whole thing?

GEEWAX: Well, absolutely. Having just said that there are these real pockets of strength, we have to acknowledge that gasoline prices, this rise in oil prices, really has the potential to derail so much of what good has been happening.

If auto price - auto sales could be impacted by things like this, rising gasoline prices. And so it's something to watch, something to worry about, and of course there are other factors out there. The European debt crisis continues to be a real problem. China's slowdown is a potential problem. Of course we still have our own ongoing debt and deficit problems in this country.

So yes. There are huge problems out there. For the moment, they haven't derailed this economy, but they are things to worry about.

MARTIN: And also, a number of our listeners wanted to be sure that we understood that there are a lot of people still struggling out there.

GEEWAX: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Let me read a comment from Lashonda Barker(ph). She sent this over Facebook. She said, I work in social services and I continue to see college educated unemployed on welfare. Yes, people are getting jobs below their qualifications, like buying Kraft cheese at the 99 cent store. It seems like a depression, and when people are working but making below their needs.

GEEWAX: We have...

MARTIN: Thoughts.

GEEWAX: Absolutely. There are too many people out there who don't have jobs. Nearly 13 million searching for work, about five million people who've been unemployed for more than 27 weeks, the long-term unemployed. Many people still have part time jobs and want to move up. And if you're in specific industries – say, newspapers - you probably feel like you're in the middle of the - not just the Great Recession but the Great Depression. I mean, there are still sectors that are just terrible and we can't ignore the suffering that is still going on.

But to be fair, we have to look at both what's looking up and what things are lagging.

MARTIN: But could you just tell us, though, Marilyn, what do you think the thing is? What is the story that you think people will be most surprised by over the course of the week? I mean, you look at these figures all the time and you keep a close eye on them, but for people who kind of are just sort of checking in, not keeping as - their own circumstances are OK and so they're not, perhaps, as anxious about this.

What do you think will be the most surprising?

GEEWAX: Well, I think in the big picture, for me, was that a lot of times, the news is skewed by what's happening on the coast. We have most of the media concentrated in along the East Coast or the West Coast. But what we did was send reporters to the Heartland where things like Kansas - the sales of tractors are so good, and pickup trucks, because agriculture is so strong. We have another reporter in Michigan talking to people who are related to the auto industry who are feeling good for the first time in years.

Again, this story out of Utah where there are tech workers who are - you know, it's not Silicon Valley. It's kind of out there in the middle of the country where we're seeing some real success stories and, needless to say, energy is just booming in places like North Dakota.

So when you look at the Heartland, I think that's the surprise for those of us who live on the coasts.

MARTIN: Marilyn Geewax is a senior business editor at NPR. She joined us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Marilyn, thank you so much for joining us once again.

GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome. It's always a pleasure to be here.

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