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The Great Recession slows down - Martha Carr

There are small signs that the Great Recession is starting to shift gears. New employment statistics show U.S. companies are not shedding jobs in record numbers. Under more normal circumstances, losses would still be seen as a negative, but after the dips we've seen these past two years, less can now be seen as more.

However, that has more to do with the big corporations than the people who no longer work for them. It doesn't really create a picture of what it's like for the middle class. Historically, those stories are told in hindsight long after the crisis has passed.

Sure, there have been a few families used as examples on the evening news to illustrate what a foreclosure looks like on the ground level. But, it can be difficult to give an accurate portrayal of what's happening to millions of people while in the middle of the story.

Researchers will go back after it's all over and collect the data to compile a more accurate view of what this roller coaster ride was really like for all of us. It'll confirm that it was a doozy, but will show exactly where the dips and turns occurred and what caused all of it.

We already have a good idea of what caused the Great Recession, but there will also be surprises when Wall Street inevitably gets around to writing tell-all books. The blame will move around and, perhaps, there will even be a few quiet heroes to emerge.

None of that helps the pain we're going through now, but, perhaps, it'll help to know we were capable of surviving what will probably turn out to be a match for the maelstrom of the Great Depression. There are a few facts we already have that give us glimpses into how bad it's been, and that it might be getting better and can help us all to hang in there.

Since the official beginning of the Great Recession in December 2007, the number of long-term unemployed has risen by 5 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Long-term is defined as anyone who has been searching for a job for longer than 27 weeks. The number doesn't include those who have become so discouraged they've given up, or anyone who took a part-time gig, but really wants, or needs, full-time employment.

The last statistic, though, about the under-employed, is where it's possible to catch a glimpse of the economy starting to shown signs of life for the masses. In January, their numbers fell from 9.2 million to 8.3 people. Some sectors actually showed signs of growth in January. Employment in the retail trade rose by 42,000 after remaining flat during the height of the holiday season. Grocery stores gained 14,000 new jobs, clothing stores added 13,000 and general merchandise retailers now have 10,000 new employees.

It takes corporate optimism to buy more goods and hire more people to sell them. There's an assumption that consumers will have money and spend it, and this often becomes self-fulfilling just as it did in the beginning when everything came to a screeching halt.

Other interesting changes to the workforce may be more permanent. Women now make up 49.9 percent of the total workforce as compared to 48.8 from before the recession started. Their earning power has been steadily increasing over the past 30 years, according to a new Pew Report, as more and more women out-earn their husbands.

There is a likelihood that the recession was deep enough and lasted long enough to create all kinds of social changes in America that will continue to affect the country for a generation. The new census will show short-term changes, such as if the upheaval created waves of migration to other parts of the country, much like the Depression, as people searched for work and tried to leave behind lost homes and jobs. These migrations can cause a shift in how much money different areas receive in federal assistance or the number of congressmen who represent them.

All of that, though, comes later. Right now, we are gazing longingly at the job statistics as the first barometer of real change in our favor. America is still in business, and at some point, we'll all have to get back to work.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.