Ben Bernanke declared Tuesday that the recession is "very likely over at this point." He called the recovery technical, though, and said that it won't feel like a real recovery. Instead, Bernanke talked about the risk that the economy will grow too slowly in the second half of 2009 to create many new jobs or replace the ones that were lost. In which case, "unemployment will be slow to come down," Bernanke said. "It will come down, but it will take some time."
I askedSlate and DoubleX readers a month ago how they would know when the recession is over. Based on your responses, many of you aren't ready to celebrate Bernanke's vote of confidence in the economy. You have your own markers for the end of the downturn. They involve a turn for the better in your own fortunes. Much of the time, that means finding new or better work. So if you're toasting Bernanke, it's probably in the sardonic spirit of Slate columnist Daniel Gross: "The recession is over! Let the jobless recovery begin!"
Here's what the still-battered troops have to say. One reader, a Ph.D. student in the sciences in Pittsburgh, explains that the recession will be over for her "when I no longer worry about how I will pay my bills for the next year." She is a graduate student who suddenly found herself with only two-thirds of her previous annual stipend and unexpected extra taxes to pay because the source of the funding changed. That leaves her with an anticipated income of only $14,000 this year. She is teaching music to supplement that, but it's hard to balance that with the 70 to 100 hours a week she must spend in the lab.
This student has already given up almost everything she can think of (except the Internet) and taken in a roommate, and "I am still very concerned about how I will pay my heating bills this winter." She adds, "I can't go without food or electricity." No, I would say not. She has looked into food stamps and heat subsidies. But as a scientist, she earns an income that's just above the federal poverty level, so she doesn't qualify. She thought Bernanke's announcement might help by making Americans feel more secure. But she added, "Unfortunately, the people in the trenches do not feel any of the recovery. I think much of America, and definitely the people that I know personally, don't feel like any of the financial 'help' has hit the people who really need it, who could really use it."
I also heard from readers who are working but consider themselves recession-exploited, as their employers continue to wring more work out of them as they lay other people off. A library assistant at a D.C. white-shoe law firm recounts that in the past year, two co-workers have left her department. Their responsibilities are now hers. The firm gave no merit or cost-of-living raises last year, even though, she says, the partners cleared more than $1 million in profits. At the same time, this reader has been dealing with the financial implications of the end of a long-term relationship: "No more splitting the rent and bills, no more security of living with somebody with a bigger paycheck and savings account."
And so for her, the recession will end when her firm starts hiring support staff again and giving raises. "I think that the firm's management thinks that ice cream socials and casual Fridays will be enough to assuage its support staff, but it's frustrating and demeaning," she says. Of Bernanke's declaration, she said, " 'Very likely over' isn't exactly confidence-boosting, especially when delivered with the caveats that unemployment will remain high and weak economic activity will continue. For me, and I imagine for a lot of people, the recession's end in a very abstract sense will not mean anything until concrete changes in daily life are evident." And, she wonders, "what would have to happen for things to go back to bad and get worse?"
Other readers are more in step with Bernanke. They can see the sun through the recession's trees. Megan is about to begin a new job as a judge advocate general (a lawyer) in the Air Force, stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. This after graduating from Georgetown law in May 2008 and going to work for a New York firm that imploded. Her husband—"we got married Aug. 29!"—has been out of work since he graduated from Georgetown law at the same time as Megan. "He was hobbled by the fact that most employers weren't interested in him until after we got our N.Y. bar results, which happened in November of last year. By that time the recession had deepened and absolutely no one was interested in hiring anyone at all," Megan writes, reminding me of the sagas of other recent graduates with advanced degrees. "I'll know the recession is over when [we] both have gainful employment as lawyers and are able to start paying back our gigantic student loan debt and reactivate our Netflix account." She longs to organize her movie queue. If I were moving to Alaska, I'd want to bring Netflix along, too.
For another reader, Jennifer, the end of the recession will come when she and her husband can leave behind McAllen, Texas. (I've written before about how the downturn has forced people to move to or remain in cities they don't want to live in.) Jennifer is a lawyer, and her husband is in finance management. They met in McAllen (a city that came to stand for costly and wasteful health care this summer), where they'd moved separately for different reasons: Jennifer's clerkship with a judge and her husband's first rotational assignment for his company. "When our respective sentences were up, we were desperate to leave and vowed never to return," she writes. The couple moved to Maryland, near D.C., and then to London and back to Maryland, where they wanted to stay. But they hit a serious recession snag. Jennifer could find only temporary contract work and, increasingly, precious little of that. Her husband finished a three-year assignment and couldn't find more work.
And then the finance V.P. dangled a high-level opportunity near McAllen—at the company's manufacturing plant in Reynosa, Mexico, which is just over the border. Why? Because no one else wanted to move to McAllen. "We struggled with the decision," Jennifer says. "I suppose it is a testament to how bleak our prospects in Maryland seemed that we even took the offer under consideration."
They moved with a promise—two years, and the finance V.P. would bring them back to Maryland. But he has since been laid off in a round of downsizing. "We are now here indefinitely, until we can find our own way out," Jennifer writes. "It is fair to say that we feel we are, in a way, in exile."
Exile isn't misery, exactly. Jennifer found a job in McAllen that she loves, doing appellate work. Her husband's job is secure, though the violence over the border in Reynosa is scary. The cost of living is low. But "the closest people we know are a six-hour drive away, through desolate scrubland and a Border Patrol checkpoint." The weather goes from hot to "holy crap is it hot." Most of the population is Hispanic, and Jennifer and her husband don't speak Spanish, though they're trying to learn. "Family is an important part of the culture, and without our own family network to rely on, it can be very lonely."
Until she can move back to a bigger city near her family and friends, or at least a major airport, Jennifer will feel caught in the recession's grip. "If the recession is over for some people, I must not know them," she says. When the real end of the downturn comes, Bernanke won't need to tell us. We'll see it for ourselves.
This article also appears in DoubleX.
I've had a great time reading all of your e-mails, and talking to some of you, for these pieces on how the recession has affected you. I'm ready for a new project, so I'm going to put the series on hiatus for now. But I'm not reassured by the recession's technical end, either. So if you have ideas for future questions I should ask about the jobless recovery, or whatever happens next, please do send them to email@example.com. And thank you for all the thoughtful, candid responses!