Is the Economy Getting Better?

Group of workers
••• Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images

While it may be hard for some Americans to confidently say the U.S. economy is getting better, others say the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us and the country is now on a path of steady improvement. On one hand, the gross domestic product was $20.93 trillion in 2020, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). That represents a year-over-year decrease in real GDP of 3.5%. That means the economy has work to do to return to a healthy 2-3% growth range.

However, while the annual data represents the impact of the pandemic on the economy, the most recent GDP data shows that the U.S. GDP grew at an annualized rate of 4% in the fourth quarter of 2020. That growth was thanks to an increase in exports, among other factors, according to the BEA.

Similarly, while unemployment is higher now than it was in previous years, it is on a positive trajectory. Unemployment peaked in April 2020 at nearly 15%, but by December 2020 that rate had fallen to 6.7%. If the trend of economic recovery continues, the U.S. could soon return to the natural rate of 4.5%.

Consumer Spending

Digging into the GDP data a bit, one of the first things an analyst will notice is how important consumer spending is to the overall economy. An analyst can typically expect consumer spending to make up roughly two-thirds of the nation's overall GDP. That's partially why the pandemic hit the economy so hard—when people stayed home to prevent the spread of the virus, they were less likely to spend as much as they otherwise would have.

In December 2020, personal consumption spending accounted for roughly $12.92 trillion (in chained 2012 dollars), compared to $13.36 trillion in December 2019. That's a troubling decrease in year-over-year data, but it doesn't tell the whole story of the economic recovery after the initial hit of the pandemic. In April 2020, personal spending bottomed out at just under $11 trillion.

Consumer spending is one of the most closely watched data points within the GDP. As spending recovers, analysts expect to see other areas of the economy recover, as well.

Data That Points to an Improving Economy

Despite the widespread downturn in the spring of 2020, some aspects of the economy sprang back quickly. Housing prices, for example, never saw a significant pullback. Price growth stagnated in the spring, but it never decreased. By June, prices resumed growing, and December's home price index reflected year-over-year growth of more than 11%. Sales of existing homes did dip into negative territory in the spring, but the rates of sales resumed year-over-year growth by July.

Stocks crashed hard in the spring, but they recovered remarkably quickly. The Dow set closing records in November 2020 and has continued to set record highs in the months since. Granted, higher stock prices may not immediately benefit many Americans, but it is a leading economic indicator. When stock prices rise, corporate CEOs feel confident and, as a result, they are more likely to invest. They will expand their businesses, buy new equipment, and hire more workers. The increase in income will lead to more demand. It creates a virtuous cycle that drives further economic growth.

Why Some Feel the Economy Is Getting Worse

Even though there are data that suggest that the economy is getting stronger, many people feel discouraged and frustrated. The economic recovery from the 2008 financial crisis was slow and unsteady—unlike previous recoveries, in which U.S. GDP growth was 4% a year or more. It was in the midst of this sluggish recovery that the pandemic hit, and many fear that existing problems will be exacerbated for an extended period.

The stark difference between the swift recovery of stock prices and the lagging recovery of other economic measurements has led some to call the current situation a "k-shaped recovery." In other words, some are doing very well in the current economy, while others are still struggling to recover from the initial impact of the pandemic.

Wage growth has been slow for more than a decade. Since 2008, even as stocks recovered, incomes haven't significantly increased. In 2012, the real median household income was $56,912. That's about the same as it was in 1988, once you've adjusted for inflation. Due in part to the sharp impact of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, wages did grow during the second half of 2020. However, the average hourly employee in the U.S. currently earns $29.81 per hour, and if wage growth had been healthy for the past decade, that hourly wage would be more than $33.

Even before the pandemic, the real unemployment rate had consistently been high. The official unemployment rate before the pandemic hovered around 3.5%, which was historically low, but that rate only counts people who are actively looking for work, and many unsatisfied or would-be members of the labor force aren't included in the figure. When she served as Federal Reserve Chair, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen pointed out this discrepancy between "real" unemployment and the figure many economists reference. A speech she gave in January 2017 included the comment, "A broader measure of unemployment isn't quite back to its pre-recession level. It includes people who would like to have a job but are too discouraged to look for one and people who are working part-time but would rather work full-time."

The U.S. debt, as a percentage of GDP, has been well above historical norms for more than a decade. The debt-to-GDP ratio spiked during the 2008 recession, and that trend never reversed. The debt-to-GDP ratio first surpassed 100% in 2012—meaning that the total public debt was more than the country's total economic output. The ratio later fell below 100%, but it grew again and in recent years has been worse than ever before. Since 2016, debt has consistently outpaced economic output. The pandemic only further exacerbated this issue, and the debt-to-GDP ratio peaked at more than 135% in the second quarter of 2020.

U.S. infrastructure is old, and the government is dragging its feet on updates and maintenance. Many of the roads, dams, and bridges that we depend on to keep the economy humming along were built as part of the New Deal in the 1930s. By some estimates, traffic congestion alone costs the economy $120 billion every year. While many highways, water utilities, and railroads are aging, total government spending on these crucial pieces of infrastructure has been on a declining trajectory since 2001. Of the government spending on infrastructure, more than three-fourths of the funds come from state and local governments rather than the federal government.