JOPLIN, Mo. —
For the first time in nearly four years the nation’s unemployment rate fell below 8 percent last week. On Friday, the Labor Department said only 7.8 percent of Americans who want work are unemployed.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will use the numbers for a new round of political boxing, with the former saying this is hardly sufficient, and the latter noting that the country has added jobs for 24 straight months.
Maybe this is a victory, but it’s only a victory in the same way that slowly receding floodwaters are a victory for people who were once in it up to their necks are now in it only up their knees. There’s not much reason to celebrate and still much work to do to restore, in this case, the nation’s economic health.
The number of unemployed Americans who are out of work and still looking for a job tops 12 million. That’s the equivalent of the population of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. And that’s only those who are looking for work. Millions more have given up for now, perhaps permanently.
Unemployment has been the most intractable of the nation’s economic problems since this crisis began, and even with the latest numbers, remains so.
The surest way to create jobs is to revive the American middle class, to put money in its hands so its members can buy everything from cars to computers. Until that happens the economy is always going to be running sluggish. For decades the middle class has seen its incomes and buying power stagnate because of flat or insignificant wage increases drowned out by rising energy, health care and education costs. Only by multiple members of a household working Ñ and taking on credit card and housing debt has the middle class kept treading water.
Even though the country pushed through the 8 percent unemployment barrier Ñ by just two-tenths of one percent, mind you Ñ we see no evidence that middle class buying power is being revived. Wages are still stagnant. Costs are still rising. The long-term trend is not reversed.
For all the plans the two presidential candidates have laid out, we realize there is only so much the government can do, and truthfully, should have the power to do in reviving the economy.
Much of the revival will depend on employers re-investing in employees, and it will depend on an American middle class shaking off the personal debt that became a way of life for too long.