NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Unexpectedly good news on Friday: The country added 243,000 new jobs, and the unemployment rate dropped two ticks to 8.3 percent, the lowest in three years. The slow improvement started last fall, but even optimists worry that recovery remains fragile, and everybody agrees the rate of growth is too slow.
As for those still looking for work and many others who've given up, the economy can often seem just as bleak as ever. If you've been out of work, what has changed? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Patrick Symmes' revenge-fueled mission to catch a bike thief. But first, unemployment, and let's start with a caller, and Paul's on the line with us from southern Ohio.
PAUL: Hello, sir.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. What's changed for you?
PAUL: Well, a few months ago, I was unemployed due - approximately 10 months ago, a downturn in the economy. And I've got back to work. I'm very fortunate to have a job that's in high demand. I'm a truck driver. And I just wanted to comment that my local area, southern Ohio, I've seen an improvement in jobs and the economy within the last few months. It's a slow but steady improvement, and I just wanted to make that comment, thank you.
CONAN: Before you go, Paul, what economic indicator are you looking at when you say the economy's improving?
PAUL: Well, OK, it might seem trivial or inconsequential, but the amount of people - and I know this sounds ridiculous, but the amount of people I see go into my local stores has increased. That tells me that they're spending more money, shopping and buying things in the local stores where I live.
CONAN: And presumably need more trucks to deliver those things to those stores.
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PAUL: Yes, sir.
CONAN: There you go.
PAUL: And my - the trucking industry does seem to have picked up some as far freight is concerned.
CONAN: Paul, thanks very much, and congratulations on the job.
PAUL: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: Joining us now is Motoko Rich, an economics reporter with the The New York Times, with us from her home there in New York. Nice to have you on the program again.
MOTOKO RICH: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And let's look at the sunny side of those unemployment numbers for a moment. Some say that as more people like Paul get jobs, they're going to want to buy houses, and the sector that plunged us into this mess could power our way out.
RICH: Well, that's certainly the hope, right, that we are starting to enter what economists call a self-sustaining cycle, where people like the gentleman caller get a job, and then, as he points out, there are more people at the stores, and then like you said, those things need to be delivered. Those things need to be made. Those things may need to be imported or exported. People need to be hired to sell them as there's more demand.
And then those people in turn will be spending more and spending more, and then as you point out, the hope is, of course, that they will be spending on big ticket items, not only houses but cars, furniture, appliance and that kind of thing. And then it becomes a cycle where the more people buy, the more there is a need for people do all the things on all the jobs that get that stuff into our houses.
So that's - the consumer, for better or for worse, is a very large part of our economy.
CONAN: And so there are some gloomier aspects to those numbers. For example, long-term unemployment is very stubborn.
RICH: Yes, that's - it's really, really the saddest legacy of this recession. You know, four years after we're plunged into a crisis, there are people who are still looking for work. And in this last report for January, the number of people who had been out work for six months or more was five and a half million.
And there was another report that came out earlier last week from the Pew Institute which showed that over four million people, and that's more than the population than the entire state of Ohio, where your caller was from, who have been out of work for a year or more.
And unfortunately, there are a lot of studies out there that show that some of that can become self-fulfilling. Either people give up, because they're so discouraged, they've been looking and looking and looking. They've - I've talked to people who have literally applied for hundreds of jobs. And they're at the point where they're not even getting responses from the employers. And so they give up, particularly people who are older.
The statistic is that if you're - you're more likely to become unemployed if you're younger, but if you're 55 or older, and you do become unemployed, you're much, much more likely to stay out of work for a long time. And some of those people get to a point where they feel like there's sort of age discrimination, nobody will look at me, I'm too old to learn new skills, people think that I'm entrenched in my old ways, and they give up, and then they stop looking.
And these are people who are not old enough to collect Social Security. They don't necessarily have much of a safety net. They're running out of unemployment benefits. So that's the real crisis out there. As much good news as we had last Friday, it's - as you said, there's still a long, long way to go.
CONAN: I think the estimate was if we continued adding jobs at that rate, we would get back to full employment by 2019.
RICH: Right, that is – that is the definition of a long way to go, and that's a big if as well. I mean, we do hope that this is, as I was saying, a kind of self-sustaining recovery that kind of feeds on itself in a good way, but there are a lot of headwinds out there that are reasons for concern.
We have a lot of financial insecurity in Europe. A lot of the other indicators that we've been looking at, like consumer spending, are not that strong yet. And then the other big, big, big cloud hanging over us is the housing market.
I recently was down in Atlanta doing a story because Atlanta has that kind of unwelcome distinction having the largest price declines over last year in housing prices, single-family home prices, and that's not even Las Vegas of Phoenix. But we're talking about a market that's really, really hurting.
I just could not believe driving around with investors and real estate brokers, just how many homes are on the market and for such rock-bottom prices. It's really hard if you're just trying to sell your home because you need to move, or you want to get a better home or you want to retire, to compete against these homes that are on the market because they've either been foreclosed, or the owners are in some kind of financial distress, and so they're forced to sell at a low price.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Warren(ph), Warren on the line from Kansas City.
WARREN: Good afternoon, how are you today?
CONAN: I'm good, thanks.
WARREN: My situation is very similar to that, but I think that they need to lower that age, because I'm just 47 years old, and I'm in the IT profession, and it's even difficult - I've been unemployed since September of 2010. And I've been blessed to the point where – when I took part of my 401(k) and paid off my house, because I basically forced the bank to do it, it's like that or, you know, let it sit there and rot.
But it's extremely hard to find a job at my age, and that's even with taking cuts in pay or what have you. It's still extremely hard to find a job.
CONAN: And how long have you been out of work, Warren?
WARREN: Since September 2010.
CONAN: Wow. And are you among those who have given up at this point?
WARREN: No, I haven't given up. I'm still stubborn and hotheaded and trying to get - make the dollars meet. My only saving grace is that I'm on unemployment, and I made what I would consider a smart decision to take part, or a large chunk, or my 401(k) and pay off my house. So I don't have a mortgage to deal with, and I've lived a very, very, very, very simple peanut butter and sardines life.
CONAN: Well, good luck, and we hope that the sardines are more fruitful.
WARREN: Thank you.
CONAN: All right, that's - it's interesting, we got that call from Warren and this email from Catherine(ph) in Minnetonka, it's in Minnesota, of course: Just FYI, I turn of NPR without fail when y'all start talking about the long-term unemployed. I am about to be unemployed. I don't want to hear how I will never work again except maybe as a Wal-Mart greeter, never have health insurance again, never do anything interesting or fulfilling again as long as I live.
Nothing could persuade me to listen to your dirges on this subject. Can't you find anything more encouraging to talk about? Well, those numbers we mentioned at the beginning were encouraging, so there might be something more in her future. But that's particularly if the housing market could take off. Motoko Rich mentioned the depressing market in Atlanta.
Joining us now is Anthony Sanders, a distinguished professor of real estate finance at George Mason University. He has been on the program before. Last time he was in Arizona when we spoke to him, and we didn't know that you were so distinguished, Tony.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ANTHONY SANDERS: Thanks, but I'm still reeling over the thought of the peanut butter and sardine sandwich.
CONAN: It's also curious, you must be experiencing a very different housing market here in northern Virginia than you were in Tucson.
SANDERS: Oh, absolutely. I'd chosen Phoenix, but (technical difficulties) part and parcel.
Yeah, there's a horrific housing market, and D.C. is the exact opposite. This is a thriving market because the - thanks to government expenditures, the housing market has been thriving here, it's doing quite well.
CONAN: Now, do you see that pent-up demand that we are seriously under-housed after all this recession where nobody was basically buying new houses and that if people start getting jobs and young people decide to move out of their parents' homes, we could suddenly enter that virtuous circle that Motoko Rich was talking about?
SANDERS: Well, I agree with what Motoko was saying, and that is something we're hoping for. But bear in mind at the same time, we're having, you know, record numbers of multifamily properties being built, thanks – you know, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, our mortgage giants, are helping fund very low-cost apartments in the United States.
So we still have, you know, massive inventories of homes, foreclosed homes, on bank books that are coming slowly out in the market. We still have a way to dig out from this. But again, I think housing prices for the most part have kind of bottomed out. They'll bottom out in the spring, but by the summer they'll start going up again.
And so I think this could be a good summer for - to see a market rally.
CONAN: A market rally this summer?
CONAN: Where would you look for signs of that?
SANDERS: Not a big rally. This is going to be a very small rally, but it's a step in the right direction.
CONAN: Motoko Rich, would you agree with that from what you've seen?
RICH: Well, in talking to some economists, they have talked about sort of reaching a bottom between spring and summer. So I would agree that that's what a lot of people are talking about. But in terms of a rally, I guess it depends on what you mean.
Say in Atlanta, for example - well, if you just look across the nation, house prices are still around 2003 levels, and in Atlanta they're below 2000 levels. So you'd have to have a pretty strong appreciation before a lot of people who are currently underwater would even get out from under it; in other words, that they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are even worth. So that's part of the problem.
But the other - the flip of that is this question of whether despite all the inventory that is out there, there hasn't been a lot of new construction happening except for the multifamily, but a lot of people, as they get jobs and feel more secure in the economy, will probably want to move out of those rental properties and back into homes.
The question is, how many of them will have to do it and how fast can they do it? If you really want to scare yourself, there's some pretty gory statistics, like for example, the inventory of foreclosed homes either already on the market or waiting on bank books to be released onto the market is something like 16 months.
In other words, it would take 16 months to sell off all those properties. And then my colleagues are writing stories about the imminent settlement between the states and some of the banks on mortgage release, and they talk about another potential 2 million properties foreclosing.
CONAN: Motoko Rich of The New York Times; also with us, Tony Sanders for the George Mason University. Stay with us. We're talking about actually encouraging economic news. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. After years of gloomy news on the economy, Friday's report of a surge in new jobs in January came as a welcome surprise. What we don't know yet is whether it's the start of a sustainable long-term growth or a positive blip on what will continue to be an otherwise downtrodden economy.
We're talking, today, about how these latest job numbers are playing out across the country. That job trend has been up for five months, but everybody agrees that this is a fragile recovery at best. If you've been out of work, what's changed? Our number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
I have to acknowledge an email from Ben(ph), who corrected us: The population of Ohio, over 11 million, not less than four million, so we apologize for the error. Our guests our Motoko Rich of the New York Times, an economics reporter there. Also with us, Tony Sanders, distinguished professor of real estate finance at George Mason University, formerly a professor at Arizona State.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go next to Michael(ph) and Michael with us from Farmington in New Mexico.
MICHAEL: Yes, I'm actually on my way to Farmington, on my way to a job interview.
CONAN: Oh, good luck. What kind of job is it?
MICHAEL: Well, I have a master's in nonprofit management from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I manage organizations that help people. So I'm on my way down to talk to a women's shelter today.
CONAN: And this sounds - from the tone of your voice, it sounds like an interview is a rare achievement.
MICHAEL: Well, you're talking about changes, and as they've happened, I've been out of work for 22 months. This is my third interview in that time, and it's my second one in two weeks.
CONAN: So the - crocuses as best, but the signs are positive.
MICHAEL: Yes, and I must say of the - I've probably put out more applications, more resumes in the past three or four months than I had in the 18 months prior. There just seems to be - I don't know if it means money is going in, so they're hiring, or how the equation works, but there certainly seems to be more opportunities right now.
CONAN: Michael, good luck.
MICHAEL: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And Tony Sanders, as we talk about the housing market, obviously yes, Washington, D.C., thriving, yes where you were before in Phoenix having a lot of trouble, as we hear, from Motoko Rich, also Atlanta in serious trouble. But there are so many places in serious trouble. It's California, it's Nevada, it's Florida, it's Michigan.
SANDERS: Oh absolutely. If you go to the original, what we call the sand states - that's Florida, Arizona, Nevada and the Inland Empire of California, it's still suffering. You know, massive negative equity. Unemployment rates are unusually high because a lot of construction work is no longer there.
We really need much faster growth in the job's labor front to get this - plow out of this problem. And that's what we have to have. And hopefully we'll get there.
CONAN: We've seen some indication of being willing to buy some big-ticket items, such as cars, but not houses. How come?
SANDERS: Well again, I would put that down in part to the fear factor, that is since housing prices continue to decline, although they'll come up in the summer - which always happens every summer. Credit's tight, and a lot of people apply for loans, and then Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and the FHA either insure or purchase them, and they've really cranked up credit standards, enormously recently.
So there's people out there willing, but they can't get the credit to buy a home. So it's fear and lack of credit are really holding back the market.
CONAN: Motoko Rich, is that what you're seeing, the access to cash?
RICH: Absolutely. I mean, we - people tell sort of grim jokes about five or six years where all you needed a signature or even just to sign X to get a loan, and now it's much, more difficult, that even - we've interviewed people who have very high credit scores, but they've been asked to double their down payments or sort of been harried by paperwork to death.
There was a couple who had recently gotten married, and they were asked to document by a personal letter from each person who had given them a cash gift for their wedding that in fact that this was a gift and not a loan before they were allowed to count that toward their down payment.
So there's all kinds of really rigorous, rigorous stuff that the banks are going through, and of course that's a reaction to having not done that all before, and that's in part a good thing, but I think it's gone to another extreme.
The other issue where you talked about people being willing to buy cars and how that's different from houses is that a lot of these people are people who had been holding and holding on and holding on to the car that was about to break down, and they finally have said OK, we need to buy a new one. And so some of that demand that we've seen in the last year for cars is simply pent-up demand that people had been holding on through that whole period of financial insecurity, and they finally said we've got to buy a new car, we need one.
Whereas with a house, people tend to hold on and hold on until they really are in a position that they can buy, and young people who don't have work, they simply can't buy a house. They have to either live at home or live with friends or what have you.
CONAN: This email from Madonna(ph) - not the one who performed last night, halftime, at the Super Bowl - at least I don't think: Last for Christmas, we sent out a postcard to all our family and friends letting them know that we would not be giving gifts because my husband's employer had gone out of business. We turned off the air conditioning, all the services except basic Internet for job searching, and we deferred all maintenance on the house.
Thanks to our savings and unemployment, we were able to make it through nine months of unemployment. Now thanks to the federal stimulus program, my husband is back at work on a large construction project for a new police station in the town next to us. It took 527 resumes and nearly 40 interviews for him to get a new job.
What's changed? Jobs are there to be had, which were not there for the last two years. And Motoko Rich, stimulus jobs, well, those for the most part are petering out. That money's going away now.
RICH: Yes, I think that we've seen - if you look at the jobs numbers in general, what we see is that government is laying people off, not adding them at this point. And of course some of this stimulus money doesn't get translated into direct government jobs but rather money that's dispersed and contractors that hire people, but like you rightly point, it's starting to peter out.
So I don't really think that's where our growth is going to be coming from. It's really going to have to come from the sort of self-sustaining circle where some people get jobs, they start to spend more, and then the companies that are benefiting from that extra spending start to hire more.
But it's really hard to get traction on that, and as Tony pointed out, we need much bigger growth than we're getting now to really pull us out of the holes that we're in in so many places in this country. And even though we don't want to sort of say that this is a bad number, this is unequivocally a good number that we got in January, it's still not big enough.
CONAN: And Tony Sanders, how much bigger a number would you like to see before you would say hats in the air?
SANDERS: I would say we need GDP growth above six percent, and we're only currently at about - under two, or we'll probably be two next year. In terms of unemployment, we really, seriously have to have a number that's in about the range of five percent, six percent.
Here's the problem, though. While I agree that the numbers were really good, last week, in the jobs report, what you have to look at is the employment-to-population ratio hasn't budged in the last two years. It's still 58.5 percent of the population is employed.
That means that 41.5 percent of the population is not in the labor force, and that's a drag. It's hard to drag that many people along and have a sustainable recovery. Write your Congressman and tell him to do something about the job market.
CONAN: Here's an email from Brian(ph) in Mariana, Florida: The actual number of unemployed people of working age is way low. It does not count those who are underemployed and in the underground economy. I'm referring to those who do not qualify for unemployment insurance, such as self-employed people who do odd jobs for a living and the many, many small, one- and two-person businesses that do not use fine(ph) numbers but operate off Social Security numbers.
And yes, there's also the black economy, as well. Van's(ph) on the line, Van with us from Mitchell in South Dakota.
VAN: Yeah, I was calling with some positive comments about employment. We have a job boom happening in South Dakota. We have the opposite problem of most of the nation, and that is that we need people to come here to work our jobs.
I live in Mitchell, South Dakota, where we have a number of trailer manufacturers that are looking for trained welders. Our state is working on a contract with a company called Manpower to bring in people from out of state to come here and work.
And our largest city in the state, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has a large amount of customer service jobs in credit cards and those types of positions. We're in desperate need of people to come here and work. Our employment rate is very low in South Dakota, and it is in North Dakota, as well.
CONAN: We were - our crack research staff just handed me this article from Prairie Business magazine. The South Dakota Department of Labor and regulation lists nearly 10,000 job openings in its employment system. Many of those job openings are for skilled or professional positions like welders, engineers and accountants, but fewer than 200 welders, engineers and accountants are receiving unemployment benefits in South Dakota today.
So opportunities there in South Dakota. Thanks very much for that, Van, and Mokoto Rich, that's in part because of the oil and gas boom, and that's a very positive part of the economy.
RICH: Yes, and it has been actually throughout even the downturn. Those were the standouts. There are always going to be pockets where things are doing really well. I mean, you can look at the real estate market in Manhattan, and you probably wouldn't see the same kind of dire situation that you're seeing in Nevada.
That being said, that - you know, it's not representative of the whole country. It would be great if some of the people who are unemployed in other parts of the country could get jobs in South and North Dakota. One of the problems for some people is that they can't - they simply can't move because of the housing market. They own a house. They owe more on their loan than their house is now worth, so they can't sell it because they can't pay off their loan and then therefore they can't move. So that's part of the problem.
My colleagues have also done stories about even housing shortages in places like North and South Dakota. There's such a huge need for workers, but not enough places for them to stay. But it is true. I mean, it's at an unbalanced - we can't sort of categorize a huge nation like ours with just one broad brush. There are some places that are doing absolutely terribly and some places that are doing pretty well. But overall, I think I agree with Tony that we need a lot more growth overall, a lot more people need jobs to really pull all the different strands of the economy out from the whole that we've been in for the last four years.
CONAN: Let's go next to Anthony. Anthony, with us from San Jose.
ANTHONY: Yeah. Actually, I'm longtime listener, first-time caller. I currently am unemployed. I was laid off about four months ago. And I actually used the opportunity to go into a new profession. I have my B.A. in international relations, but I'm actually going into electrician. So I'm going to school for - to become electrician. So kind of using as something to - as motivation as opposed to something to let me down.
CONAN: And wouldn't most electricians work in construction?
ANTHONY: Actually, I was working - I was selling solar.
CONAN: I see. So that's really a growth market too.
ANTHONY: It is in California, yeah, definitely. And I could probably get another job selling solar again, but it's something I want to move towards a trade or a career as opposed to just another job.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. And good luck.
ANTHONY: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Tony Sanders, that's one thing that a lot of people did was stay in school, go back, get another degree, or learn a new trade. All of that is going to read down to our benefit if those people can get jobs.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
TONY SANDERS: Well, that's always been a component of any recession we've seen. We see the number of people going back to school increases and - if you have the money - and that's generally turned out to be, when we pull out of the recession, we have better-educated population. So it's been a positive. The issue now is that we do have a lot of people in college and we do have people, like he just said, going through either re-education, whether it's own their own, through technical schools, universities. So when we pull out of this, we'll have, you know, this should be a vibrant recovery eventually.
CONAN: We're talking with Anthony Sanders, distinguished professor of real estate finance at George Mason University. Also with us, Motoko Rich, economics reporter for The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Doug is on the line, Doug with us from Vancouver in Washington.
DOUG: Yeah. I just - I've recently found myself unemployed again. Being a construction worker, it's been kind of a - employment has been kind of hit and miss for the last few years. But from the last three weeks since I got laid off, I had a couple of interviews which, you know, two or three years ago I'd go eight, nine months without any interviews and just had - end up having to take a truck-driving job to kind of make ends meet while, you know? So I see it getting better, too, where I'm at.
CONAN: And what kinds of construction jobs are least looking to hire?
DOUG: Well, mostly project management, which is kind of - I made the jump between tradesperson and project management, I don't know, five, six years ago.
CONAN: A better class of unemployment then?
DOUG: Yeah. Well, it's just there's more options, 'cause I can be a skilled tradesperson and I can do management, too. So it's - but that's, you know, I just see that there's a lot of - there's a lot more opportunities out there. I'm getting call-backs. There's, you know, it's just - I, you know, it just seems a lot better.
CONAN: All right, Doug. Good luck. Here's an email from Marcia: My husband was laid off from vice president of a bank job three years ago. He just got the same position at another bank last week at the age of 58. He was unemployed for those three years. We are so grateful. Ricky is on the line from San Francisco.
RICKY: Yeah. Hi. I was laid of in February of '08, you know? So it's been a long time. A few months after that, I did get one job that I thought would be permanent, but they eventually - not eventually, right away, they laid off everybody there, too, so I lost that job. So I was on unemployment, went off to that. I'm on GA now, but this is the first month I can't afford my rent. And what has changed recently, in the last two weeks, I had two interviews. Both of them started by asking me - at the first one, how old are you, the first question, you know? And I felt, well, I'm not going to answer that, but then I just told them that I'm 44. The second interview, which was just last week, the first thing he said, well, you're no spring chicken, you know? And I just...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RICKY: ...everybody here's 20 years old and they're skateboarders. And I said, put me with any of them. There's no problem there with me, you know? So that's very new. I've never heard anything about age, and I never felt old or thought I looked old or have an old spirit or anything.
CONAN: Forty-four sounds pretty young to me.
RICKY: It's discouraging. It's very discouraging.
CONAN: Ricky, we wish you the best of luck.
RICKY: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Anthony Sanders, if you - if there's one thing you'd be looking for in the short term, maybe next month's job report, what would it be?
SANDERS: Well, I think for next month we're going to see a continuation of improvement in the jobs reports. If we look at the adjusted data, the seasonally adjusted data may not look too good because, again, you get a January spike in unemployment. But on the seasonally adjusted basis, we'll probably see improvement. That's good. But again, it'll be an improvement, but we're too far away from enough. We really need more growth in the economy, and we really need more employed. I feel so sorry for people who are calling in that have lost their jobs, but at least it's good to hear that there is some movement out there in the market.
CONAN: Tony Sanders, thanks very much for your time today.
SANDERS: Thank you.
CONAN: Tony Sanders, distinguished professor of real estate finance at George Mason University. And, Motoko Rich, we appreciate your being with us.
RICH: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Motoko Rich, an economics reporter for The New York Times. We'll end with this email from Jim in St. Paul: I'm in my fourth week of a new job after being out of work since September 2010 when a temporary 12-month job with the 2010 census ended. Since then we've moved and sold and bought homes. My wife and I were both without permanent jobs in 2009 and 2010. Both of us landed in good paying jobs because we did not stop networking and found positions that were not advertised.
So at least in some places, for some people things are looking up. Thanks, everybody, for your calls and for your emails. We're sorry we couldn't get to everybody.
Coming up: Thieves stole Patrick Symmes' bike in broad daylight in a crowded New York City street. He set out for revenge on any bike thief he could find. He joins us next to tell us what happened. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.