In a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House last Thursday, President Obama signed a bipartisan measure intended to help expand entrepreneurs' access to money — and, ultimately, create jobs. The affair drew plenty of favorable headlines for the JOBS Act (the noncreative acronym for Jumpstart Our Business Startups), and in some ways provided a cushion for the sobering news that came a day later: The overall unemployment rate fell only slightly, to 8.2 percent. This week brings a new round of data, and a key question: Is the economy really getting any better?
Let's step back for a second. In a lengthy April 3 address to a gathering of news executives in Washington, D.C., the president offered a blunt assessment of the country's economic mood that struck a clear election-year fighting tone: "Can we succeed as a country where a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well, while a growing number struggle to get by?"
He insisted true job-creation catalysts are in the private sector, not Washington. He defended certain regulations protecting individuals from insurance schemes. He warned the congressional Republicans' austere budget proposal is "a Trojan horse" that would signal sharp cuts to education and research for potential cures for Alzheimer's and HIV/AIDS. Obama imagined his likely general-election opponent, the wealthy former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, would call these proposed cuts "marvelous" — "which is a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing a budget."
The economy is by far the most pressing issue on the minds of Americans. It is the central, but not exclusive, matter on which Obama will be judged this November, and to prevail he must prove his economic policies are gaining traction. Which brings us to last Friday's jobs report. Here are the key takeaways: The official unemployment rate among blacks remained at an astonishing 14 percent, nearly twice that of whites. Nearly 120,000 jobs were added. The last point sounds good, at first glance. But it's actually far less than analysts expected. It's also barely half the new jobs necessary to truly heal from the Great Recession.
The slight shift in the overall unemployment rate reflects people leaving the labor force — not necessarily that we've found jobs. The shift doesn't fully account for population growth. It suggests that people are discouraged, and have simply stopped looking for work. (Romney quickly pounced on the news, saying, "It is increasingly clear the Obama economy is not working.")
"We're having a slow recovery from a very deep recession," Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, said, adding, "but at least we're going in the right direction." Algernon Austin, a sociologist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, observes that in each of the year's first three months, the share of blacks with jobs has increased.
The shifts are having a tricky effect on the country's mood, and it's difficult — especially in this Twitter-ized, context-less moment — to gauge what's really happening. One month's economic data doesn't offer a full snapshot. We're shopping at Wal-Mart instead of Banana Republic, if we're buying clothes at all. In cities, we're walking instead of taking the bus or driving (seriously, who can afford gas at $4-plus per gallon?). Instead of rolling out to the bar on Friday nights we're curling up on the sofa, watching another episode of the addictive, headache-inducing The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Or, better yet, Kerry Washington's intelligent new show, Scandal. Maybe, if we're smart, we're reading a book.
Longtime unemployment strains family relationships, leads us to cut off friends. We shut down, consider running away. For many, the self-confidence erodes, along with skills. Newspapers are reporting people are even selling blood to survive.
But the truth is, the moment's chaos presents tremendous opportunity, if we're ready. Our insights and experiences are often undervalued. The answer may be in entrepreneurship. So ignore the economic noise — and keep moving.