Checking In On The Economy, The Good And Sluggish

Guests

Marilyn Geewax, senior business editor, NPR
John Wake, realtor and associate broker, HomeSmart in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The U.S. economy started showing signs of recovery in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Four years later, the economy is slow to recover in some areas. The stock market and housing are showing signs of growth, while unemployment still lags behind.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. Neal Conan is away. As of this month, it's been exactly four years since the U.S. economy officially started rebounding. It's been an excruciatingly slow recovery. Workers' wages have not grown much, unemployment is still at 7.5 percent, yet the last week has brought some signs that things are getting better.

Housing prices are growing faster than they have in seven years. Consumer confidence is at a five-year high. And the stock market keeps hitting new records. So we want to know whether the economy has turned a corner where you live. If the recovery is uneven, is your community seeing a change? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the student sparks that keep a teacher going. But first the state of the U.S. economy. And we're going to begin with a caller. We have Dan(ph) in Leesburg, New Jersey, on the line. Hi Dan, go ahead.

DAN: Hey, Ari, how are you?

SHAPIRO: Fine, thanks.

DAN: I'm a smalltime builder. I build a house now and then and do a lot of carpentry work and kitchens and things. And the Sandra hit north of us, in Seaside Heights. We're like from Atlantic City south.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, this was the hurricane last year.

DAN: Yeah, Sandra, and we didn't get the main damage, but we got a lot of the - a lot of flooding. Thousands of houses got flooded. So there's a lot of flood work down here. Basically most of the contractors I know are absolutely overwhelmed between the flood damage and just overall. The new home building has really, really picked up.

SHAPIRO: Really?

DAN: All through these shore towns, absolutely, all through the shore towns there's if not dozens, many, many dozens of houses in each town being built right now. I don't know the exact figure, but I would guess in Ocean City, they're probably building 80, 90 houses in the one town alone.

SHAPIRO: And Dan, when you set aside the storm damage, how big a difference is the boom that you're seeing right now from what you were seeing a few years ago?

DAN: Four times, three times, three, four times as much.

SHAPIRO: And are you confident that this is a long-term change and not just a short-term blip or a boom?

DAN: You know, like I said, I'm just a guy on the street, but it seems to me everyone I'm talking to, everybody's pretty confident that things have turned around in this area.

SHAPIRO: All right, well some good news there from Leesburg, New Jersey. Dan, thanks for the call.

DAN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And we're joined here in the studio by Marilyn Geewax, NPR's senior business editor. She's with us here in Studio 42. And Marilyn, to start with, we said we're at the four-year anniversary of the recovery. What exactly does it mean when we say that the recovery started four years ago?

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Well, let me just take a moment to throw confetti up in the air. We're celebrating our fourth anniversary. Happy anniversary everyone. I know it doesn't feel like good times to an awful lot of people, but really this recovery began officially in June of 2009. Now remember we had been falling very rapidly, losing in January of '09, we lost more than 750,000 jobs in one month. So it was just a rock dropping.

And Congress came in, a new president came in at the time. That was when President Obama was just taking office. And in those first weeks in office, they put together that stimulus package. So by June of 2009, this flood of federal dollars was washing over the economy. The Federal Reserve was acting quickly to put lots and lots of money into the system. So they stopped the freefall in June of '09.

SHAPIRO: So is the recovery measured from when we stopped losing quite so many jobs and started losing fewer jobs? Is that the turning point?

GEEWAX: No, you know, jobs tend to be a lagging indicator. We actually peaked with job losses in October of 2009 when we hit 10 percent unemployment. So the economic freefall stopped in June of '09, but the unemployment problem continued. And what we've seen since then, it's the National Bureau of Economic Research that is sort of the body that calls it and says this was the worst of the drop. And since then we've been gaining. We've actually had an expanding economy nonstop for four years now.

SHAPIRO: And describe the pace of that expansion.

GEEWAX: That's the thing that is maddening. It always seems like we're just making some progress, we're turning the corner. As I said, the peak of unemployment was October of '09. So here you are, you know, years, literally years later, and we still have nearly 12 million people who are unemployed. And of those, even worse, you have more than one out of three who has been out of work for more than six months.

That's a long time. That means your unemployment benefits are running out. You really start just taking any kind of work just to get some money coming in the house. And so it's still a very, very tough economy for millions of Americans.

SHAPIRO: Let's take another call from somebody who is not feeling the recovery as much as the first caller we heard from. This is Ed(ph) in Franklin, Tennessee. Hi Ed, go ahead.

ED: Hey, how are you? I just - briefly, I'm from an area that's very affluent, but yet I'm still seeing no changes in the economy regarding new work and moving forward as far as the way that people purchase goods and services. I think I'm particularly impacted because what I do is at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to the way decisions are made in small business.

SHAPIRO: And you're an event planner?

ED: Yes, and you're not going to be planning events and hiring out contracted labor to set up and do events if your budget is being impacted because the economy is not turning well. And I think the thing that's really noticeable is that I'm having to pitch my services 60 to 70 percent less than what I was making four or five years ago simply to be able to get the job.

You don't want to not work, and so you want to keep moving, and so this is the way I deal with it. I give myself the excuse that this is a way for me to promote my business in order for me to be able to sell my goods and services. But I've been doing this 30 years. I'm not a new kid on the block. What I see is the government's lack of discipline with their bookkeeping and with the way that they manage our nation is trickling down to a lack of confidence in the American people being able to have the confidence to dream and have a hope or build a business without so much rule and regulation.

SHAPIRO: Ed, let me ask Marilyn how your story ties into national trends that she's been monitoring. Marilyn?

GEEWAX: Well, I think that the kind of trepidation he's talking about here, where you see some business, but you just don't feel that - there's not that zest. You're not excited about it. You're not seeing the kind of business building on each other and every, you know, month you want to add another employee. That's what we're seeing in the data.

When you look at the numbers about wages, for example, the wage growth is very slow. I mean really, people are not getting raises to speak of, unless you're in some certain selected industries. If you're involved in energy stuff, you can maybe get a raise there. But most Americans are not seeing wage growth. There's not that sense of robust growth.

And for example in manufacturing, we're getting new numbers that are showing, you know, a lot of factories felt like there was momentum, and they wanted to add workers, but now it's slowing down again. A lot of that is tied to globalization, China's slowing down, troubles in Europe, but you're just not seeing a robust recovery where people feel good, and they want to take chances, and they want to rush forward.

SHAPIRO: OK, so if we're not seeing wage growth, and if we're not seeing some of the other signs of improvement you mentioned, then why are we seeing home prices going up, consumer confidence going up, the stock market going up and these other signs that things are improving?

GEEWAX: Well, we've been down so long it's feeling like a...

(LAUGHTER)

GEEWAX: You know, the fact is that time goes - marches on. And some of what's happening, some of the reason that people are feeling more confident, or you're seeing some improvements in some areas, is because things wear out. You really do use up your car after a while. You know, even if you're a little bit nervous about the economy, you still do need a new car.

Or especially if you want to expand your business, and you need a new pickup truck, people are going out and buying those things.

SHAPIRO: But consumer confidence? I mean...

GEEWAX: So that's also some of the reason that people are feeling a little bit more confident is that we've stopped some of the mass layoffs. Back in 2008, '09, '10, you by to your neighbor - you know, you may have a job yourself, but if your next-door neighbor has lost their job, that makes you nervous.

Lately we have not seen job growth, but we haven't seen those massive layoffs that we were seeing a few years ago. So that's helped to rebuild confidence, and that makes people feel a little bit better.

SHAPIRO: And I suppose saying that consumer confidence is at its highest in five years just means that it's higher than when the recession hit.

(LAUGHTER)

GEEWAX: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Let's bring in another guest now. We have John Wake with us on the line. He's a realtor and associate broker with HomeSmart in Scottsdale, Arizona. He joins us by phone from his office in Scottsdale. Hi John, welcome to the program.

JOHN WAKE: How are you doing?

SHAPIRO: Good. And so your part of the country was the hardest hit during the housing crunch. Tell us what it was like at the bottom.

WAKE: Oh wow, at the bottom there was no hope because people were wondering is it going to go lower. That was the big concern, is it going to go lower because they had just totally tanked. Some of the cheapest, least expensive zip codes fell 80 percent in value. How would you like to have a home that was worth $200,000 that was now worth $40,000? So that...

SHAPIRO: And now? Now what's that $200,000 worth?

WAKE: Well, it's gone up a lot, but it still worth $60,000. So it's still way down. But there's hope now that - and a lot of investors came in, particularly for those low-priced ones. And then after a while, we got to the point where prices were low for so long, about a year, that that was the bottom, when people are thinking OK, they're not going to fall anymore, we can dip our toe into it. And for almost two years now, prices have been increasing very strongly.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I guess we should keep in mind that when we say home prices are growing faster than they have in seven years, they might be going from $40,000 to $60,000 on a home that was, as you say, once worth $200,000.

WAKE: Yeah, so it looks like a great percentage increase, but it's still a long way for what the peak...

SHAPIRO: Is it very patchy, or is it pretty across the board? Are you seeing it in cities, suburbs, rural areas?

WAKE: Oh yeah, totally. The ones that got hurt the most, the least expensive homes were hurt the hardest, and they're coming back the most. But let's say the - something like an affluent area like Scottsdale fell maybe a third in value, other areas fell two-thirds, Phoenix overall fell about 50 percent. So the ones that got hurt the hardest, the really inexpensive areas, have come back the most.

SHAPIRO: And condos as well as houses?

WAKE: Yeah condos as well, sure.

SHAPIRO: You know, I saw a figure that something like two million people are no longer underwater because home prices have gone up. What kind of effect does that have on a community?

WAKE: Yeah, that's a little deceptive because if you bought in 2005, '06, '07, you're still, your home is not even close to what you paid for. But some people, since the prices have come up, that they can sell. But I think it's all - a lot of it is just psychological because they feel more positive - prices are going up - and that they can buy and sell.

You know, if you're buying and selling at the same time, it doesn't matter if you sold and bought at the bottom or now because if you sold at the bottom, you didn't get a lot for your house, but the home you bought was really cheap. And now your homes are worth a lot more, but the home you're going to buy, your replacement home, is going to be a lot more expensive. So it's kind of a push.

SHAPIRO: And I understand flipping is even back, people are flipping homes again.

WAKE: Oh, no, that's actually - hey that's last year's story or the year before that.

(LAUGHTER)

WAKE: The flippers are leaving town. There's some flipping going on, but some of them are moving on to Florida because there's - they used to buy a lot of the foreclosure auctions, and they used to get them at a discount, at maybe 25, 20 percent. Now the discount is like five. Big companies came in from New York and Canada.

SHAPIRO: All right, that's John Wake.

WAKE: So there's just not - that margin isn't there anymore.

SHAPIRO: Right, John Wake, realtor in Scottsdale, Arizona, joining us by phone from his office. And we also want to hear from you about whether the economy has turned around in your community. Call us at 1-800-989-8255. Or email us at talk@npr.org. We'll be back in just a moment. I'm Ari Shapiro, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro. Lately, pockets of the economy have been looking a bit more hopeful. Housing prices and consumer confidence are on the rise and record highs on Wall Street. But we can't talk about what's going well without also talking about what isn't, namely 11.7 million Americans who are still out of work.

Friday we'll learn about May's unemployment numbers. State numbers illustrate just how uneven this recovery is. For example in Decatur, Illinois, unemployment is at 10.3 percent. Less than 200 miles away as the crow flies, Iowa City's unemployment rate is just 3.1 percent. That's considered to be full employment.

So we want to hear from you. Have you seen the economy turn a corner where you live? Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. Or send us an email, talk@npr.org. You can also tweet at us with what you've seen, we're @totn. And we have Greg(ph) in Sacramento, California, on the line. Hi Greg, go ahead.

GREG: Yes, sir, how are you?

SHAPIRO: Good, thanks. Tell us what you're seeing.

GREG: Well, what I'm seeing here is that even though we have houses still on the market and without people living in them, what is improving around here is the fact that the local government is doing so much for the general public with regards to sidewalks and a handicap on every single corner.

We are having a terrific time in the industry of building with regards to street improvement for the general public, and it's just making our environment way better to live in.

SHAPIRO: All right, so a lot of building and local infrastructure investment. Thanks for the call, Greg. And Marilyn Geewax, NPR senior business editor, how does that local infrastructure investment that he's describing in Sacramento compare to the national outlook?

GEEWAX: Well, we got some new numbers about that today, and actually public construction spending was down 1.3 percent in April, that's the most recent figures. So that's actually a seven-year low. Now, remember we talked about in the winter of 2009 we had that big stimulus program. And a lot of that stimulus money for infrastructure has now gone through the system, and it's waning, and we've moved into this age of sequester, where the government has cut back, has set aside a bunch of funds that should have gone to more public spending.

So in most locations - now, of course any state or city could be different, but overall the general trend is less spending on public construction, and that's one of the certainly political points that people want to make. Some folks feel that we should be spending more money on infrastructure to create more jobs.

SHAPIRO: President Obama has been saying we need to build roads - roads, bridges, ports, et cetera. Congress is not allowing it so far.

GEEWAX: And that's one of the big budget battles I'm sure we'll be seeing throughout the summer as they try to decide should they boost some of this infrastructure spending again. But right now we're in a bit of a lull, and the one thing that has perked up, as we heard from the person we were speaking with in Arizona, there's more hiring in residential construction these days.

And a lot of that is tied to lower interest rates. You know, we've seen very low, historically low mortgage rates. So that's helped people get back into the market a little bit for housing, and that's helped push up residential construction jobs. But this loss of infrastructure jobs is also weighing on the economy in a negative way.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned the sequester, and we have a tweet here from Ruth Frasier(ph), who writes: In rural Indiana we were struggling before, and we're struggling more because of the sequester. My personal indicator as a public librarian are tax revenue and local hiring, as well as capital projects for municipalities.

Marilyn, the sequester, according to the Obama administration, was supposed to slow or halt economic growth and take a real cut out of the economy. Is that what we've seen?

GEEWAX: It's very hard to tease out exactly what's happened so far. Now, keep in mind that the process of sequestering these funds, setting them aside and not allowing them to be spent, it really only kicked in in April. There's been some moving of the money. You know, at first it looked like lots of, for example, air traffic controllers were going to be furloughed. And then the money got shifted around and that didn't happen so much. It only lasted less than a week.

So measuring exactly what happens, you know, it takes a while to collect the economic data. And I think this Friday we'll get a better sense of that...

SHAPIRO: When the unemployment numbers come out.

GEEWAX: Yes, we'll have a new unemployment report on Friday morning, and that will tell us what happened in the month of May when sequestration was fully in effect.

SHAPIRO: Let's take another call, from Dallas in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi Dallas, what are you seeing?

DALLAS: I'm seeing a whole lot going on that's really positive in my community. I know we got hit the hardest out of everybody during this recession, but nowadays - I mean first off, Michigan is not for sissies.

(LAUGHTER)

DALLAS: A lot of people left, but the people that are still there are some of the craziest, more hardcore guys (unintelligible) going strong at it. The bandwagon fans left and the rest of us just stayed here.

SHAPIRO: Well, describe how you're seeing that. What do you see around you?

DALLAS: Well, I live in a neighborhood called Eastown, which is just your standard kind of hipster neighborhood that five years ago was vacant buildings, and now you're seeing, you know, just awesome like little - everything is locally owned popping up. You know, there's no McDonald's around there. It's just, you know, guys like me...

SHAPIRO: Well, for people to have the spending money for lattes, they've got to have jobs, right? So are people hiring in your town?

DALLAS: Absolutely. The craft beer industry has been a giant boom. That's what I work in. So I'm working on making like a cooperative, cooperatively owned brewery. You're seeing a lot of things like people just kind of thinking outside the box and going the route of creating cooperative restaurants. They're creating just things like that, where people are actually taking a stake in it and owning it instead of - I don't know, just - we're starting to reject that corporate mentality that got us into this mess in the first place. We're starting to create positive things amongst ourselves.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call. And Marilyn, and as you and I were talking earlier, Dallas was calling from Grand Rapids, Michigan, you described what you said was sort of like a triangle on the map of the United States.

GEEWAX: Right.

SHAPIRO: Tell listeners what you were talking about.

GEEWAX: It's interesting. I was looking at some maps at state unemployment, and if you made a country and you carved it up and it looked like a triangle and it went from Minnesota all the way over to Montana and then cut down that triangle to Oklahoma, in that wedge, gosh, that's a booming country. That is...

SHAPIRO: That country would have the lowest unemployment of practically anywhere in the world.

GEEWAX: I looked at the statistics for Iowa, for example, which would be in my triangle country, and it - there is not a single city in all of Iowa that had an unemployment rate higher than 4.8 percent. You know, really...

SHAPIRO: OK, so what does the triangle have? What's the magic?

GEEWAX: That triangle is focused on energy and agriculture. And those areas are booming. You know, we just heard this deal in recent days where a Chinese company wants to buy Smithfield...

SHAPIRO: The pork producer, yeah.

GEEWAX: The pork, ham folks. And that's because all over the world people want to eat food. They would like to have ham and eggs and pork and, you know, all the things that our agricultural sector produces. So if you're growing wheat, corn, all of that, it's a great time to be an American farmer, and it's also a terrific time to be in the oil and gas discovery business because all of those places - I mean we've heard so many sad stories in recent weeks about Oklahoma and the tornadoes, but they actually - you know, that is an area that is just absolutely booming with energy.

SHAPIRO: You also pointed to an interesting statistic about auto sales that relates exactly to the point that you're making.

GEEWAX: Right, this business that what we're seeing in auto sales is it's plateauing for cars. It's not so much that folks are rushing out. The people who really needed to replace their cars have already kind of done that. But where we're seeing the growth is pickup trucks and luxury pickup trucks. You know, they want the inside to be really nice because you can afford a really nice pickup truck.

So you're seeing SUVs because there are a lot of people in that sector of the economy, and also residential construction, so you're seeing more small businesses buying small pickup trucks and things like that.

SHAPIRO: All right, let's take another call. This is Carol(ph) in Mayfield, Kentucky. Hi, we've got Carol on the line, go ahead.

CAROL: Yes, I was saying that in our part of the country, I'm not sure that we're seeing as much growth in the economy as we need to. We have seen some indications of some industry coming into our area, but we're also losing industry. In West Kentucky, anyway, we've lost the USEC plant in Paducah.

SHAPIRO: What is USEC?

CAROL: It was uranium enrichment. That's being closed down...

SHAPIRO: And what's moving in to take its place?

CAROL: Who knows.

SHAPIRO: But you said you're seeing new businesses arrive as well.

CAROL: Well, it's not anything that's going to replace that. There's a German manufacturing company, I think they do car parts, that's going to be building a plant in Murray, Kentucky, which will hire, you know, will increase or have the opportunity for some jobs for some people. I don't know - but that's going to be as much as a year or more away before that's fully up and functioning because they've actually got to build the plant.

You know, and really if anything here, the economy's just flat. You know, there's no growth per se or no significant increase in the economy. It may not be declining as much as it was. But there's still a lot of people out there who are looking for jobs or who are in jobs where they're making very low wage.

SHAPIRO: OK, Carol, thanks for the call. And Marilyn, the word I keep hearing people use is doldrums to describe this recovery.

GEEWAX: Right, and it reflects how difficult it can be to recover from some things. Let's go back to that point bout Decatur, Illinois. They - you know, it's not far from the agricultural areas. They have a college in that town. Why aren't they doing as well as Iowa City? If you've got a college town, you've got agriculture, blah-blah-blah? But what happened in Decatur and so many cities in Illinois is they've lost manufacturing jobs. You had a Firestone plant that closed there. And once you lose those really core jobs that - the ones that pay a really good wage, union jobs, that kind of thing where you have benefits, pensions - once those jobs go away, it takes a long time to rebuild. So even if you're in an area where you think, well, gosh, we've still got some nodes of strength, we need to rebuild, it can take a very long time.

SHAPIRO: And it seems clear that the post-recession economy is going to be very different from the pre-recession economy.

GEEWAX: Right.

SHAPIRO: We have an email here from Steve(ph) in Las Vegas making that point. He says: Vegas is starting to come back from the deep recession but not in the way everyone thought. He writes: Our housing market is starting to boom. Prices are rising steeply. Gaming and tourism revenues are slightly higher. But our brightest spot, he says, is a high-tech boom now happening in our downtown, not on The Strip, which is still dominated by casinos, but in the old Vegas downtown. Young high-tech entrepreneurs are moving in and starting a small Silicon Valley here. Las Vegas has a long way to go, he writes, but it will end up being different because of the recession.

GEEWAX: I'm from Youngstown, Ohio, originally, and, you know, when I look at what the lost of jobs from industry, that when the steel mills, auto factories, those kind of things closed down, those jobs - job losses had been absolutely devastating. But now, there's, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

GEEWAX: ...hardly enough. It sounds almost crazy, but there's a high-tech incubator in Youngstown and it's doing very well. Hundreds of people have gotten jobs because of that, and it's spun off. Now, I think there are an awful lot of people in Youngstown who just wish they had a good-paying factory job again, but their children are going to Youngstown State. They're learning to get into the high-tech industries. You've got some fracking, which is essentially a technology-driven business. I mean, looking for natural gas with high-tech techniques. So you're seeing, you know, sort of a new economy taking shape in a lot of cities, but it's a tough one. It requires a lot of skill, a lot of risk taking, and it's uncomfortable.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to Cincinnati, Ohio, where we have Chris(ph) on the line. Hi, Chris. Go ahead.

CHRIS: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

CHRIS: I've been in the hospitality industry for about 10 years now around here, and as much as I've seen a boom in the economy and people building new restaurants and everything like that, I haven't seen an increase in wages. The wage stagnation has just been across the board so much so that people have to get second and third jobs just to be able to support themselves and...

SHAPIRO: And does that mean that you're eating out less, going to movies less, postponing buying a new car or furniture, the other things you'd be spending money on?

CHRIS: We see that with everybody. I think that everybody has a lot less discretionary spending, like money to spend actually. So they go out and eat less. They go and like they don't spend it on retail or whatnot. They just spend it on what's pretty much the core essentials. And people who do go out, when they go out, they go out on special occasions. I know they're, like, OK - then what we have to do essentially is, see, like, you know, send out specials and like run discounts or whatnot...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CHRIS: ...to draw these people in, to get more people to come in. And when they come in and they get those discounts, the server is usually aren't the ones getting anymore money towards them. The company...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CHRIS: ...makes the money, but the servers don't get as much as they should anymore.

SHAPIRO: All right. Thanks for the call, Chris. We're talking about the state of the U.S. economy, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Marilyn Geewax, NPR senior business editor, you were telling me earlier today that Wal-Mart is having its annual shareholders' meeting in Arkansas this week, and it has some good news for the company, reflecting some good news in the American economy, I guess.

GEEWAX: Well, it really comes down to the same argument that this gentleman was just making about wages and having enough money to spend, but you also want to hold prices down. Wal-Mart, we'll hear a lot about this, this week because they're having their annual shareholders' meeting, and there are protesters there already in Bentonville, Arkansas, that are trying to call attention to the fact that a lot of Wal-Mart workers get help with food, you know, the - what we used to call food stamps.

They also get Medicaid because their wages are typically for most clerks a little under $9 an hour, and that adds up to about 18,000 a year. If you have a family, that means you're actually living in poverty even though you're working full-time. So there's a lot of concern about wages. On the other hand, every economist will tell you that Wal-Mart has really helped with inflation and made it very possible for people to feed their families for low prices because Wal-Mart has kept down prices.

SHAPIRO: Let's take another call from John(ph) in Tallahassee, Florida. Hi, John. Go ahead.

JOHN: Hey. How you doing? I just want to talk - you mentioned Wal-Mart, but the grocery business in Florida - I'm talking independent grocers - is way down in, like, rural areas. And, you know, part of that is groceries have, you know, kind of skyrocketed, and people are looking for, like, the Wal-Marts because they are, you know, they are holding the prices down.

SHAPIRO: So a broad shift away from small to big businesses?

JOHN: Right. And, you know, so it was kind of hurting the rural towns and the small grocery chains.

SHAPIRO: Although I'm sure Wal-Mart would say for people to be able to afford low-cost groceries and home furnishings and such is helpful for them.

JOHN: Right. And I agree. But I just see it as in Florida, Alabama and Georgia, the - just the small stores in rural areas, they're just hurting real bad. They've been declining for the last few years. Bye.

SHAPIRO: All right. Thanks for the report, John. Marilyn, who in this semi-recovering economy is least likely to be feeling the recovery right now?

GEEWAX: Least likely: the lower skilled you are, the tougher it is. If you look at the statistics on unemployment, you are just a lot better off with a college degree. People who have less than a high school degree, unemployment is terrible. It's so chronic, long-term unemployment. And even - here's a thing that's really tough to accept, but even skilled workers have to be more skilled. You know, if you were an auto mechanic 20 years ago, you had a certain set of skills. Now, you really have to be pretty much a computer expert as well; not only understand the car but understand the software. It's become kind of a computer with - that rolls.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I mean, I guess throughout this recession, unemployment among minorities has been higher than it has been for white people.

GEEWAX: Yes. At any time you - anywhere you're looking at, regardless of race or ethnicity, the lower your educational attainment, the tougher it is to find a job. And for people with college educations, again, there, it sorts of spread out. If you have those technical, scientific skills, if you're in the medical background kind of thing or, certainly, in the petroleum, energy industry, any kind of...

SHAPIRO: Not medicine, energy and agriculture.

GEEWAX: Absolutely. That's where the jobs where the jobs.

SHAPIRO: All right. That's Marilyn Geewax, NPR senior business editor who joins me here in Studio 42 to talk about the economic recovery, where it's happening and where it's not. Marilyn, thanks a lot for your time.

GEEWAX: Always fun to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And coming up, many of us remember a particular teacher who made us sit up, pay attention and try a little harder. When we come back, we will hear from a professor who will tell us about how a student's spark inspires the educator. So stay with us. I'm Ari Shapiro and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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