The jobless rate might be falling, but we've got a long way to go thanks to government failure.
There was some genuinely good employment news in the most recent monthly jobs report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate fell to 6.3%, the lowest since September of 2008, and 288,000 net new jobs were added to the economy in the month of April. With a little luck, next month's jobs report will inform us that the economy has recovered all of the jobs lost since the last employment peak.
But no one should be taking any victory laps over their stewardship of the economy. The last employment peak was in January of 2008, over six years ago. This has been, by far, the slowest jobs recovery of any of the eleven post-World War II recessions, and simply reaching the previous peak does not mean that the economy has fully recovered. The working age population has grown since then and we have a ways to go before we actually reach full employment.
A jobs recovery doesn't magically fix the problems created by years of high unemployment. Spells of unemployment, short and long, due to the conditions of the economy, have taken a significant toll on the financial well-being of millions. Many of these people will likely never recover their lost wages or return to the career path they were on before the downturn began. The recession and long period of high unemployment has left them poorer.
It's important to be reminded of this because it didn't have to be this way. Forecasting recessions might be hard, but fixing them actually isn't, at least if politicians are interested in fixing them. The government just needs to spend more money in order to make up for the lack of private sector demand. Instead of doing that, our elected leaders embraced austerity madness once the initial stimulus ran its course. There are 710,000 fewer public employees than there were at the beginning of the Obama administration.
The recession was, strangely, also a missed opportunity. The additional money the government should have spent to boost demand could have been spent on the kinds of nice things that most people, regardless of party affiliation, think the government should spend money on, and it could have done so by borrowing money essentially for free and without any fear of inflationary pressures. Needed repairs to roads, bridges and transit systems could have been made. Antiquated water and sewer systems could have been upgraded. Schools could have been built.
Instead we had a prolonged period of economic suffering, one that we still haven't recovered from, and those roads still need to be repaired. I'd like to think that we'll know better next time, but few who called for austerity seem to have admitted to any error.
When future economists look back at this period of time, they'll wonder just what we were thinking. We know how to fix recessions, we just didn't bother to do it.
Duncan Black writes the blog Eschatonunder the pseudonym of Atrios and is a fellow at Media Matters for America.
In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors . To read more columns like this, go to the opinion front page or follow us on twitter @USATopinion or Facebook.