The Legacy of the Great Recession: Part I: Recovery Began in June 2009

Chart Book: The Legacy of the Great Recession

Updated May 29, 2014

Special Series: Economic Recovery Watch

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

Change In Real GDP

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.

Private Payroll Employment Has Grown For 50 Months

Monthly Change in Non-farm Unemployment

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 9.2 million jobs to their payrolls in the last 50 months, an average of 184,000 jobs a month. Private employers added 273,000 jobs to their payrolls in April, while government added 15,000, bringing total nonfarm payroll employment growth to 288,000.


Part II: The Recession Put the Economy in a Deep Hole

GDP Fell Far Below What the Economy Was Capable of Producing

Gross Domestic Product

In the first quarter of 2014, the demand for goods and services (actual GDP) was roughly $830 billion (about 4.6 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 shrank at a 1 percent annual rate in the first quarter. Most analysts think that the decline is due to special factors and that the economy has begun growing again — although not at the sustained pace of 4 percent or better that would be needed to propel the economy back toward full employment more rapidly.

Job Losses Were Unprecedented

Percent Change in Nonfarm Employment Since Start of Recession

Employers began to add jobs in 2010.  Progress erasing the jobs deficit has been slow, but the economy has now recovered about 8.6 million of the 8.7 million jobs lost between the start of the recession in December 2007 and early 2010. Nonfarm payroll employment was 0.1 percent (98,000 jobs) lower in April 2014 than it was at the start of the recession and should finally erase that jobs deficit next month.

That would be a milestone on the way to a full jobs recovery, but population growth over the past several years means the potential labor force is larger than it was then.  At a minimum, the economy will have to maintain the pace of job creation so far this year (214,000 jobs a month) to restore full employment in a timely manner.

The Unemployment Rate Rose to Near Its Postwar High…

Unemployment Rate

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 6.3 percent in April unemployment remains high – and would be higher still if, as discussed below, labor force participation had not declined as much as it has.

…And Has Stayed High Long After the End of the Recession

Unemployment Rates During Recessions and Recoveries

The relatively modest pace of job growth over most of the recovery 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 6.3 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

Employment Population Ratio

The sharp rise in the unemployment rate and discouragement over the prospects 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 rate has recently touched levels last seen in 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

Long-term Unemployment

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 April was 2.2 percent, which is near the highest levels reached prior to the Great Recession (in the immediate aftermath of the 1981-82 recession). Long-term unemployment remains a significant concern: more than a third (35.3 percent) of the 9.8 million people who were unemployed in April 2014 had been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer.

Labor Market Slack Reached a Record High

Total unemployed plus all marginally attached workers

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 April 2014, this rate was 12.3 percent.

The Number of People Looking for Work Swelled Compared with the Number of Job Openings

Unemployed workers per job opening

At one point at the beginning of the recovery there were 7 people looking for work for every job opening. That ratio has declined substantially, but it remains closer to the worst levels reached in the previous recession than to those in the three years prior to the Great Recession, which are more characteristic of a normal job market. In March 2014, 10.5 million workers were unemployed but there were only 4 million job openings. That is about five unemployed workers for every 2 available positions — in other words, even if every available job were filled by an unemployed individual, about three of every five unemployed workers would still be unemployed. This calculation does not include the people who want to work but are not looking because job opportunities remain limited or those working part time because they can’t find full-time jobs.


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…

Gross Domestic Product

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

Unemployment Rate

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.

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