One complaint I often hear from people is that despite what economists say, the recession isn’t over! In technical terms, the semi-official measure of recessions created by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that the “Great Recession” that began in December 2007 ended in the middle of 2009. But reasonably enough, people point to the facts that incomes are still stagnant, paid employment is still at a very low percentage of the population, long-term unemployment is still high, and the like. They also point to their own personal experience. What people often miss, however, is that the standard definition of a “recession” refers only to the decline of the economy. It does not say anything about the period of stagnation that can occur after the NBER recession is over during which the economy can get stuck on the “floor.” That is, the standard definition of a “recession” describes it as being like the tide receding in the ocean – but doesn’t cover the possibility that the tide might stay low for a long time.
But there’s another way to look at this issue: what if we’ve used the wrong number to see what’s “recessed”? The standard measure used by the NBER is very complex but in practice fits pretty well with the journalist’s rule of thumb. The latter says that a “recession” occurs when inflation-corrected or “real” Gross Domestic Product falls for two or more quarters (of a year) in a row. This rule of thumb suggests an alternative measure, one much closer to home. Using this measure, the popular complaint about the recession not being over may be right on target.
What if we see recessions as measured by a fall in the “real” median household income? This is the income of a household that’s smack dab in the middle of the income distribution, with an income higher than the poorer half of households but worse than the richer half. Since only annual data are available, a “recession” refers to the fall of that number from the previous year. This means that if this kind of recession occurs, an "average" household is suffering. As seen in the table below, this calculation implies different years for recessions. Call this a “household income recession.” The table also represents the different dates for NBER recessions during recent decades. Because median household income is measured only from year to year, my dating of recessions cannot correspond exactly to the NBER dating.
The NBER recession of 1990-91 (under the guidance of the “Maestro,” Alan Greenspan) is often seen as being "small" since it was less than one year long. But like the Volcker recession, household incomes continued to fall after the NBER recession had ended, all the way into 1993. This approximately two-year delay helps explain candidate Clinton’s slogan “it’s the economy, stupid!” and the dissatisfaction with President Bush #1 that helped speed his ouster from the White House. Of course, it was also this recession which spawned the seemingly oxymoronic phrase “jobless recovery”: even though the economy was “recovering” by NBER standards, the availability of jobs was stagnant. The latter fits with the idea of the Household Income Recession continuing into 1993.
Recession C (still during the Maestro’s reign, at the end of Clinton’s term) is renowned among pundits for being short and perhaps even sweet. According to the NBER definition, it started after 2001 began and ended before 2002 had even started. But for the average household, incomes fell earlier (going into 2000) and then continued to fall all the way until 2004. This fits with what critics of the “Bush #2 recovery” have been saying for a long time. This was another jobless recovery. In addition, it suggests that the hype about Clinton’s success at the end of his term has been overblown.
Finally, there’s the “Great Recession” (at the end of #2's terms and the start of Obama's), which the NBER dates from Dec. 2007 to June 2009. When measured using real median household income, however, this recession continued into 2012, exactly as the popular critics say. However, our data can’t tell us whether the Household Income Recession is over or not, since the numbers for 2013 won’t be available until next year. That's why the title to this note ended with a question.
-- Jim Devine
PS: I didn't use per capita income to measure recessions because the high incomes of the rich are represented disproportionately. Ignoring other changes, for example, if the incomes of the Koch brothers doubles, but the incomes of the non-Kochs stay the same, that raises per capita income. The median household income would say the same.
(The numbers for median household income are from the U.S. Bureau of the Census at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/household/, Table H-6.)