Chart Book: The Legacy of the Great Recession

Updated April 4, 2014

Special Series: Economic Recovery Watch

The United States went through its longest, and by most measures worst economic recession since the Great Depression between December 2007 and June 2009. This chart book documents the course of the economy following that recession against the background of how deep a hole the recession created – and how much deeper that hole would have been without the financial stabilization and fiscal stimulus policies enacted in late 2008 and early 2009.


Part I: Recovery Began in June 2009

The Economy Began Growing in Mid-2009

Change In Real GDP

Economic activity as measured by real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was contracting sharply when policymakers enacted the financial stabilization bill (TARP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The economy began growing in 2009, but the pace of recovery has been modest.

Private Payroll Employment Has Grown For 49 Months

Monthly Change in Non-farm Unemployment

The pace of monthly job losses slowed dramatically soon after President Obama and Congress enacted the Recovery Act in February 2009. The trend in job growth in 2010 was obscured by the rapid ramp-up and subsequent decline in government hiring for the 2010 Census (which is now over), but private employers added 8.9 million jobs to their payrolls in the last 49 months, an average of 182,000 jobs a month. Private employers added 192,000 jobs to their payrolls in March,and with government job growth a wash, total nonfarm payroll employment also grew by 192,000.


Part II: The Recession Put the Economy in a Deep Hole

GDP Fell Far Below What the Economy Was Capable of Producing

Gross Domestic Product

In the fourth quarter of 2013, the demand for goods and services (actual GDP) was roughly $705 billion (about 4 percent) less than what the economy was capable of supplying (potential GDP). This large output gap, which is manifested in a high rate of unemployment and substantial idle productive capacity among businesses, is the legacy of the Great Recession. Congressional Budget Office projections show the gap closing slowly over the next several years as actual GDP grows only moderately faster than potential GDP.

GDP grew at a 2.6 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter.  Continued growth of 4 percent or better would be needed to propel the economy back toward full employment more rapidly.

Job Losses Were Unprecedented

Percent Change in Nonfarm Employment Since Start of Recession

Although employers began to add jobs in 2010, the economy has recovered about 8.3 million of the 8.7 million jobs lost between the start of the recession in December 2007 and early 2010. As a result nonfarm payroll employment was 0.3 percent (422,000 jobs) lower in March 2014 than it was at the start of the recession.

The economy is not yet of the jobs hole created by the Great Recession. Total nonfarm employment (private and government combined) has grown on average, by 169,000 jobs a month in the past 49 months — a pace somewhat faster than population growth. That has contributed to a gradual decline in the unemployment rate, but faster job growth will be needed to restore normal labor force participation and high employment in a reasonable amount of time.

The jobs deficit from this recession is much larger than those in previous recessions. Private payroll employment has finally topped its December 2007 level and total payroll employment is likely to do so within the next few months But reaching full employment will take considerably longer, since the population and the potential labor force are now larger.


The Unemployment Rate Rose to Near Its Postwar High...

Unemployment Rate

The unemployment rate rose far higher than in the previous two recessions and far faster than (though not quite as high as) in the deep 1981-82 recession. Technically, the recession that began in December 2007 ended in June 2009 as the economy began growing again, but at 6.7 percent in March unemployment remains high - and would be higher still if, as discussed below, labor force participation had not declined as much as it has.

...And Has Stayed High Long After the End of the Recession

Unemployment Rates During Recessions and Recoveries

Thus far, the relatively modest pace of job growth has kept the unemployment rate high long after the end of the recession. This is similar to what happened in the previous two recessions, and does not resemble the fairly rapid decline that followed the severe 1981-82 recession.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if demand were stronger and there were no output gap, the unemployment rate would be 5.5 percent instead of 6.7 percent. CBO projects, however, that unemployment will not drop below 6 percent until 2017 under current tax and spending laws.

The Share of the Population with a Job Fell to Levels Not Seen Since the Mid-1980s

Employment Population Ratio

The sharp rise in the unemployment rate and the increasingly discouraging prospect of finding a job caused a decline in the percentage of the population in the labor force (those either working or looking for work). As a result of rising unemployment and declining labor force participation, the percentage of the population with a job fell sharply in the recession and has remained depressed in the recovery. The labor force participation rate has recently touched levels last seen in 1978 and the percentage of the population with a job has been stuck near levels last seen in the early 1980s.

Long-Term Unemployment Rose to Historic Highs

Long-term Unemployment

During the recession, the share of the labor force unemployed for more than 26 weeks rose higher than at any point in the past six decades. While it has declined from its peak, the long-term unemployment rate in March was 2.4 percent, which is near the highest level reached prior to the Great Recession (in June 1983). Long-term unemployment remains a significant concern: well over a third (35.8 percent) of the 10.5 million people who were unemployed in March 2014 had been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer.

Labor Market Slack Reached a Record High

Total unemployed plus all marginally attached workers

The Labor Department’s most comprehensive alternative unemployment rate measure — which includes people who want to work but are discouraged from looking and people working part time because they can’t find full-time jobs — recorded its highest reading on record in November 2009 in data that go back to 1994. In March 2014, this rate was 12.7 percent.

The Number of People Looking for Work Swelled Compared with the Number of Job Openings

Unemployed workers per job opening

At one point at the beginning of the recovery there were 7 people looking for work for every job opening. That ratio has declined substantially, but it remains closer to the worst levels reached in the previous recession than to those in the three years prior to the Great Recession, which are more characteristic of a normal job market. In January 2014, 10.2 million workers were unemployed but there were only 4 million job openings. That is about five unemployed workers for every 2 available positions — in other words, even if every available job were filled by an unemployed individual, about three of every five unemployed workers would still be unemployed. This calculation does not include the people who want to work but are not looking because job opportunities remain limited or those working part time because they can’t find full-time jobs.


Part III: The Great Recession Would Have Been Even Worse without Financial Stabilization and Fiscal Stimulus Policies

GDP Would Have Been Lower Without the Recovery Act...

Gross Domestic Product

The Recovery Act was designed to boost the demand for goods and services above what it otherwise would be in order to preserve jobs in the recession and create them in the recovery. The Congressional Budget Office finds that GDP has been higher each year since 2009 than it would have been without the Recovery Act (with the largest impact in 2010 when GDP was between 0.7 and 4.1 percent higher than it otherwise would have been). The impact diminished, as expected, as the economy recovered, but CBO estimates that even at the end of 2012 GDP was between 0.1 and 0.6 percent larger than it would have been without the Recovery Act.

...And Unemployment Would Have Been Higher

Unemployment Rate

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that because of the Recovery Act, the unemployment rate has been lower each year since 2009 than it otherwise would have been. The maximum effect was in 2010, but CBO estimates that even in the fourth quarter of 2012 the unemployment rate was 0.1 to 0.4 percentage points lower than it otherwise would have been and employment was between 0.1 million and 0.8 million jobs greater than it otherwise would have been.

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