AS THE UNITED STATES SLIDES INTO RECESSION

 

As I was putting this newsletter together, the National Bureau of Economic Research officially announced that the U.S. economy has been in recession since last March. The delay in the diagnosis is nothing unusual because a downturn is not considered a recession unless it lasts for a significant period of time. But the point at which a recession is recognized is a good moment for reflection on the performance of the economy. Even though the United States is in recession right now, the long-term performance of the economy as a whole over the last 20 years has been quite good. The expansion that ended in March lasted for exactly 10-years—the longest in U.S. history—and it came after a short and mild recession in the early 1990s, which followed a long, stable expansion during the 1980s. The last 20 years have had the most stable growth in U.S. economic history. The growth was not particularly rapid, but there is a lot to be said for stability. The economy may decline by a few percentage points over the course of the recession, but an economy that grows by 2 or 3 per year during economic expansions can weather the occasional downturn. Thus, although here are worrying signs on the horizon (such as a persistent trade deficit and a high and growing level of indebtedness), the verdict on the performance of the U.S. economy as a whole over the last 20 years has to be largely positive.

Good performance of the economy as a whole does not necessarily mean that it has performed well for all individuals. If one judges the success of an economy by the well being of its less advantaged individuals the performance of the U.S. economy has been terrible over the last 20 years. Real wages at the low-end of the wage spectrum have stagnated or even declined slightly. Usually, poverty declines slowly during expansions and increases quickly in recessions, but there has been no lasting progress in reducing poverty since the early 1970s. The official poverty rate has been stuck in a range between 11% and 15% since the early 1970s. There was an extremely rapid decline in poverty in the 1940s and again in the 1960s, but it has not been repeated since. The '40s, '50s, and '60s were marred by frequent recessions, but individuals across the economic spectrum were able to count on gains during the expansions that would more than make up for losses during recessions. The '70s were a period of instability in which the less advantaged lost ground, and since then there has been no return to the progress experienced earlier.

Why were the experiences of the less advantaged so different during the good economic times of the '80s and '90s than they were in the '40s, '50s, and '60s? The difference is largely one of government policy. The earlier period saw the GI Bill, the fruition of Social Security, the expansion of AFDC and Medicare, increases in the minimum wage and the creation of Food Stamps and Medicaid. Since the early 1970s many of these programs have been cancelled or allowed to lapse or have been effectively cut by not being adjusted for inflation. These programs were not the best possible programs for fighting poverty, but they were all we had, and rather than being reformed, they’ve largely been cut with little or nothing to replace them aside from TANF, which seems to make welfare so unpleasant that jobs without living wages are preferable. TANF has been declared a success simply because it has reduced the number of families on welfare. The success of TANF should be measured instead by whether it reduces poverty and whether it makes children healthier and happier and whether it helps them grow into better-adjusted adults. Should it be any surprise cutting nearly every program designed to aid the poor should slow or stop the progress we had been making toward the reduction of poverty? Something else is needed if poverty reduction is our goal.

During recessions, people often voice opposition to direct anti-poverty policies, arguing that the best way to help people is to get the economy moving again. During expansions, the argument is usually to keep it moving or to get it moving faster. They say, "a rising tide lifts all boats," and everyone benefits from economic growth. But the lesson to learn from the last twenty years of economic expansion is that these arguments are simply false. The incomes of low-wage workers stagnated during the good economic times of the '80s and '90s, because policy turned against the redistribution of income, but they increased during the good economic times of '40s, '50s, and '60s, because policy favored increased redistribution of income. There is no inherent mechanism in a capitalist economy to ensure that everyone will share in the fruits of economic growth. I believe that a basic income guarantee is essential to ensure that everyone shares in our economic success. This and other strategies for better distributional equity will be discussed at the First Congress of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network. I invite you to join us.

-Karl Widerquist

From USBIG NEWSLETTER NO. 12, OCTOBER-NOVEMBER, 2001