The 2000 to 2010 decade was a hard one for America’s and Washington’s working families. While the top fifth gained wealth despite two recessions and sharp stock market swings, for most people the dream of attaining the hallmarks of the American middle class grew further out of reach. Holding a steady job, owning a home, sending the kids to college, affording medical care, saving for a secure retirement, each generation having more opportunity than the previous – these now all seem like relics of the 20th century.
This report reviews the current state of working Washington, including gains and losses in employment by sector and region, trends in income and wages, and changes in the workforce. It considers how unemployment affects the state and describes how increasing poverty levels impact families and communities. It evaluates the issue of economic security: what it means to have a job that provides a living wage and a home; benefits that include health insurance and time off to care for loved ones; access to high quality education, from pre-school through college; and retirement security – in short, the opportunity to work, save, and plan for the future. Finally, it suggests public policies that can begin to rebuild broadly shared prosperity for Washington’s working families.
Signs of a Slow Recovery – and an Uncertain Future
2010 drew to a close with some promising signs that economic recovery from the Great Recession is finally taking hold. After two dismal years, consumer spending during the 2010 holiday shopping season surpassed the 2007 level. Private sector jobs are growing again, if slowly, and economists predict rates of growth for the U.S. economy in 2011 that at least will not dig the hole of recession deeper. Extension of unemployment benefits for the millions still seeking work and middle class tax cuts from the federal tax compromise will continue to provide some economic stimulus in 2011. But expansion of jobs will be slow at best, while sharp reductions in public spending at all levels threatens to undermine the fragile recovery.
The recession, officially dated from December 2007 to June 2009, was the longest since World War II. A year and a half after the economy’s downward slide halted, our nation is still in the middle of the longest stretch of rising or stagnant unemployment since the Great Depression. Jobs have declined steadily when adjusted for population growth, and job counts in much of the country are lower than they were five years ago. By mid-2010, over 4.5 million people had been jobless for over a year.
Today the nation faces an escalating foreclosure crisis, disputes over how to deal with the growing federal deficit, and continuing cuts in federal, local, and state government spending that weaken business and job growth while decimating public services and the very public structures necessary to rebuild a healthy and sustainable economy.
Washington’s economy generally fared better than in many states in the period between the two recessions of the past decade. Following the 2001 recession, job and income growth were stronger in Washington than in the nation as a whole, but the numbers look good only in comparison. Despite gaining 840,000 new residents since 2000, Washington had only 74,000 more jobs in 2010 than at the dawn of the century.
Today’s Washingtonians are feeling the effects of massive job losses and debilitating insecurity about the future. Many people have lost not only their jobs, but their homes, retirement savings, health insurance benefits, the opportunity to go to college – and their hope for the future. In the midst of widespread need, the state faces huge budget deficits and voter skepticism over approving new revenues. Public services have already been cut severely and further cuts are yet to come.
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