Chart Book: The Legacy of the Great Recession
Updated December 6, 2013
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, but the pace of recovery has been modest.
Note: In July 2013, the Bureau of Economic Analysis introduced a comprehensive revision of the national income and product accounts, including important changes to GDP. The new data show a more erratic pattern of growth during the recovery (including a negative quarter in 2011) but the revised average annual growth rate from the second quarter of 2009 to the first quarter of 2013 (2.2 percent) is little different from the previous rate (2.1 percent).
Private Payroll Employment Has Grown For 45 Months
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 8.1 million jobs to their payrolls in the last 45 months, an average of 179,000 jobs a month. Private employers added 196,000 jobs to their payrolls in November, while a gain of 7,000 boosted total nonfarm payroll gains to 203,000.
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 2013, the demand for goods and services (actual GDP) was roughly $835 billion (about 5 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 3.6 percent annual rate in the third quarter. A period of growth of 4 percent or better would be needed to propel the economy back toward full employment more rapidly.
Note: The Congressional Budget Office has not yet revised its estimate of potential GDP to incorporate the comprehensive revisions introduced in July 2013. CBPP has adjusted CBO’s potential GDP estimates to approximate the effect of the revisions.
Job Losses Were Unprecedented
Although employers began to add jobs in 2010, the economy has recovered just over 7.4 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 0.9 percent (1.3 million jobs) lower in November 2013 than it was at the start of the recession.
The economy is still climbing out of the jobs hole created by the Great Recession. Total nonfarm employment (private and government combined) has grown on average, by 165,000 jobs a month in the past 45 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. At the average pace of 165,000 jobs a month achieved so far, it will take another 8 months for employment to exceed its level in December 2007 — and much longer to reach full employment, since the population and potential labor force are now larger. Economic growth will have to pick up substantially to reach those goals sooner.
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 at 7.0 percent in November unemployment remains high.
...And Has Stayed High Long After the End of the Recession
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 7.0 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
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 rates in October and November are the two lowest since 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
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 November was 2.6 percent, which is the highest level reached prior to the Great Recession (in June 1983). Long-term unemployment remains a significant concern: nearly two-fifths (37.3 percent) of the 10.9 million people who were unemployed in November 2013 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. In November 2013, this rate was 13.2 percent.
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, but remains at a level roughly equal to the highest point reached in the 2001 recession and its aftermath. In September 2013, 11.3 million workers were unemployed but there were only 3.9 million job openings. That is about three unemployed workers for every available position — in other words, even if every available job were filled by an unemployed individual, about two of every three unemployed workers would still be unemployed.
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.