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Chart Book: The Legacy of the Great Recession

December 10, 2018

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

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, and has averaged 2.3 percent annual growth since then.

GDP rose at a 3.5 percent annual rate in the third quarter of 2018 and was 3.0 percent higher than in the same quarter a year ago. The latter figure exceeds the average annual growth since the start of the recovery by 0.7 percentage points.

Employers Added 192,000 Jobs a Month From March 2010 through November 2018

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, but private employers added 20.2 million jobs to their payrolls for 105 consecutive months from March 2010 through November 2018, an average of 193,000 jobs a month. Total employment (private plus government) averaged 192,000 a month over that period, as federal, state, and local government were net job losers.

Total nonfarm employment rose by 155,000 jobs in November. Private employment rose by 161,000 in November, federal government employment rose by 3,000, state employment fell by 13,000, and local employment rose by 4,000.

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

GDP Fell Far Below What the Economy Was Capable of Producing

In the third quarter of 2018, the demand for goods and services (actual GDP) exceeded the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) estimate of what the economy is capable of supplying on a sustained basis (potential GDP). This suggests that the output gap between actual and potential GDP, which was manifested in excess unemployment and underemployment and idle productive capacity among businesses, has closed, as CBO projected it would in its August 2018 Update to the Economic Outlook.

CBO projects that actual GDP will exceed potential this year and next but will slow thereafter. CBO does not try to forecast business-cycle fluctuations, but instead assumes that eventually real GDP growth will reflect underlying trends in the economy’s capacity to produce goods and services and, while growing at the same rate, the level of actual GDP will be 0.5 percentage points lower than that of potential GDP, which is the average historical gap.

(CBO’s August economic projections not do not reflect the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s comprehensive revision of GDP and other national income and product accounts released in July, which affected historical data from 1929 through the first quarter of 2018. Nor do they reflect the Bureau’s estimates of GDP beyond the first quarter of 2018.)

Job Losses Were Unprecedented

Employers began to add jobs in 2010. Progress erasing the jobs deficit was slow for some time, but the economy has now recovered the 8.7 million jobs lost between the start of the recession in December 2007 and early 2010 and continued to add jobs since. Nonfarm payroll employment was 8.3 percent (11.5 million) higher in November 2018 than it was at the start of the recession.

Surpassing the pre-recession peak was a milestone on the way to a full jobs recovery, but population growth over the past several years means the potential labor force is larger than it was then. Job creation has averaged 204,000 a month over the past 12 months and 170,000 over the past three months. This pace is well above what’s required to keep up with potential labor force growth (the pace of job creation that’s appropriate once the economy is back to full health).

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

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 the unemployment rate did not fall to 5.0 percent, where it was at the start of the recession, until late 2015. The unemployment rate has been under 4.5 percent for the last 20 months, and 4.0 percent or lower for the past eight. It was 3.7 percent in November.

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

The relatively modest pace of job growth in the first years of the recovery 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 unemployment rate is much lower now than it was early in the recovery, but there still may be people who are not working but want to be or people who would like to be working full time but can only find part-time jobs who can be pulled back into the labor market or more easily find full-time work if job creation remains strong.

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

The sharp rise in the unemployment rate and discouragement over the prospects 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 stayed low through much of the recovery. It began to move up in 2014 and 2015 as falling unemployment offset still-falling labor force participation. The labor force participation rate averaged 62.8 percent in 2017 and was 62.9 percent in November; the employment-to-population ratio averaged 60.1 percent in 2017 and was 60.6 percent in November. The labor force rose by 133,000 in November, as the number of people with a job rose by 233,000 and the number of people unemployed fell by 100,000.

The employment-to-population ratio shown in the chart is for those aged 16 and older and includes an increasing number of retired baby boomers. Thus, a significant percentage of the shortfall from its level at the start of the recession reflects demographic trends rather than labor market weakness. While this rate remains 2.1 percentage points lower than it was at the start of the recession, the employment-to-population ratio for those in their prime working years (age 25-54), which fell 4.9 percentage points between the start of the recession and December 2009, has recovered all of that loss and was 79.7 percent in November.

Long-Term Unemployment Rose to Historic Highs

Long term unemployment reached much higher levels and persisted much longer in the Great Recession and subsequent jobs slump than in any previous period in data that go back to the late 1940s. The worst previous episode was in the early 1980s, when the long-term unemployment share peaked at 26.0 percent and the long-term unemployment rate peaked at 2.6 percent. Moreover, in the earlier episode, a year after peaking at 2.6 percent, the long-term unemployment rate had dropped to 1.4 percent. It took six years from the end of the Great Recession to reach that rate, which it did in June 2015. That rate has edged down since then and was 0.8 percent in November. Still, over a fifth (20.8 percent) of the 6.0 million people who were unemployed — 1.3 million people — had been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer.

Labor Market Slack Reached a Record High

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. This rate has been below 8.8 percent — its rate at the start of the recession — since February 2017 and was 7.6 percent in November. The last time it was lower than it’s been recently was in 2001.

Growth in Workers' Earnings Has Been Modest

Average hourly earnings of employees on private payrolls grew modestly through much of the recovery, and to date have averaged 2.3 percent annually. Inflation has been modest as well, but over much of the economic recovery, real (inflation-adjusted) wages hardly grew and have failed to keep up with increases in workers' productivity (output produced per hour of work).

As a result, the share of national income going to profits rose relative to that going to wages. Both inflation and productivity have fluctuated more than nominal earnings during this period, but, on average, productivity has risen at roughly 1.1 percent per year from the end of the recession through the third quarter of 2018 and the cost of a typical worker’s market basket has risen about 1.8 percent per year over the same period.

The pace of wage growth quickened in 2015 and into 2016, but then stalled in a range below 3 percent until this year, when it began edging up again. In November average hourly earnings of all employees on private payrolls were 3.1 percent higher than a year earlier, and earnings of non-management employees were up 3.2 percent. Low inflation in 2015 and 2016 led to solid real wage gains, but as inflation picks up strong nominal wage growth will be required to achieve further gains.

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


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 and is now at a historic low in data that go back to December 2000. In October 2018, 6.1 million workers were unemployed, compared with 7.1 million job openings (about 17 job seekers for every 20 job openings).

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...

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

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.