Recovery and Politics

ECONOMIC recovery in the United States continues to advance a centimeter at a time. The April jobless figures showed a minuscule one-tenth of a percent drop from March, to 7.2 percent, but in the context of an expanding work force that's cause for some encouragement. Workers are being absorbed at a slightly quicker pace.

Do such numbers support the thesis that the recovery, slow as it is, is on track? Possibly, and the upturn may yet gather enough steam to help President Bush's fall campaign. The public's perception of recovery, like its perception of recession, lags behind the numbers crunched by the experts.

The numbers, however, cut both ways. The housing market, which jumped in January and February, slipped in March, and April figures are likely to slide further. Builders and real estate agents find that many buyers are cautious about taking on large new obligations - cautious because of doubts about the overall health of the economy and doubts about their own future employment.

It had been hoped that the housing industry, with its ability to stimulate employment in a wide range of supplier industries, would lead the country out of recession as it has before.

Some analysts point out that this recovery differs notably from others in the recent past. Today's economy has less room to grow, they say, because of a range of factors, including high levels of both individual and corporate debt, a low level of savings, and lower levels of unused manufacturing capacity than have existed at the end of most recessions.

The picture, typically, is brighter in some regions of the US than others. In a reverse of the 1980s, business is expanding in the Midwest. The Northeast and California are having the hardest time recovering.

Voters' perceptions of the recovery will thus shift according to region. But they will also be shaped by worries that go beyond the emergence from the latest cyclical downturn - struggling public-school systems, for example, or a lack of discipline on the part of political leaders in setting a national budget.

Statistics like those showing an increasing number, now 14.4 million, of working Americans drawing salaries that fail to boost them above the poverty line ($12,195 for a family of four) could deepen concerns.

Equality of opportunity and fairness coexist with free-market individualism in the American creed. With the political focus now on urban neighborhoods far removed from economic recovery, those values could take on added importance this election year.

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