The recession that keeps on taking


The respectfully nicknamed Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, and the wounds from that economic collapse have been slow to heal. Yet even a robust recovery, as the nation experienced after the double-dip recessions of the early 1980s, would have helped only so much. Inevitably, human pain lingers.

Using decades of Social Security records, academic researchers have shown that workers who lose their jobs in mass layoffs suffer deep, persistent losses in their incomes and living standards. Losing a job nearly always hurts (we’ll make allowances for people who were planning to quit). But it hurts much more to lose a job during hard times, such as 1980-82, or 2007-09.

Even in relative good times, laid-off workers take a huge financial hit as a result of their involuntary job losses. In a recent study, scholars at the University of Chicago and Columbia University found that men ages 50 and under who were laid off when the nation’s unemployment rate stood below 6 percent could expect to lose the equivalent of 1.4 years of income over the rest of their working lives. That’s money they otherwise could have expected to earn had they been able to continue on their former career trajectories, before layoffs forced them to take jobs that paid less.

And when the unemployment rate exceeds 8 percent, as it did from early 2009 until this September, those thrown out of work lose a staggering 2.8 years of income over the rest of their working lives.

These insights help explain why demand is unusually high — three years after the Great Recession formally ended — for emergency food and shelter.

Across the U.S., the number of homeless and hungry people is growing, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

All of us have heard story after story about how families long rooted in the middle class have found themselves without a roof over their heads. More than half of the cities, including Chicago, reported that homelessness had increased. Requests for emergency food assistance rose from the previous year in 21 of the 25 cities surveyed, again including Chicago.

Food pantries in almost every city surveyed have had to cut the amount of food they distribute to each person. That’s a practical effect of rising demand and reduced supplies, partly as a result of higher food prices. Food pantries put less in each bag of groceries they give away, and cap the number of monthly visits they allow each family. Soup kitchens cut the size of the meals they serve.

Each of us can step up to offer at least some help, even in — especially in — a season when charity appeals have to compete with hefty credit card bills and daunting holiday expenses. The need is real. Yes, Americans have been hearing about the growing need all around them for years now. It is tempting to give in to recession fatigue, more difficult to acknowledge that homelessness and hunger don’t take winter vacations.

As a nation of individuals, we Americans can do better — and we shouldn’t be relying on our local, state and federal governments to meet every human need. Opening presents was enjoyable, but it didn’t signal that the need for giving has passed. At this time of year, in this economy, the persistence of homelessness and hunger testify that needs abound.

Given the suffering that continues as this recovery limps along, it was maddening to see President Barack Obama and a divided Congress head off for their holiday breaks with no deal in place to avert the “fiscal cliff” — some $500 billion of 2013 spending cuts and tax increases slated to take effect Tuesday.

That ongoing failure to negotiate a settlement risks just what millions of Americans fear: a new recession while they’re still struggling to escape the effects of the last.

At the rate our elected politicians in Washington are going, the U.S. may ring in the new year with tax hikes on every working American, and the serious threat that joblessness again will spike.

Mr. President, members of Congress, get to work.