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The official end of the Great Recession

Think back and try to remember where you were in June of last year. That's when the official end of the Great Recession took place, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a non-profit organization that officially calls the beginning and end of American business cycles.

I was moving out of New York City, in search of a more affordable place to live. New York was not only reeling from the national economic fallout, but was dealing with the more personal blow of Madoff's billion-dollar steal that was affecting local businesses and casting an even deeper pall across the area.

But almost imperceptibly, something changed for the better last year.

The NBER released its findings recently, and said that, based on real Gross Domestic Product and real Gross Domestic Income, the Great Recession, which officially began in December of 2007, has ended and a very gradual recovery is already underway. The report noted that this was the longest recession, at 18 months, since WWII. The previous recession that ended in November of 1982 lasted 16 months, and was brought on by a building energy crisis that resulted in double-digit inflation and long oil lines.

While the last recession lasted almost as long, it still didn't pack the punch of this one that had auto executives testifying before Congress in order to save an entire industry, or an unemployment rate that is still at a dizzying 9.6 percent. There are still nearly 44 million Americans, or one in seven, who are living below the poverty level. That is the highest number in the 51 years that the record has been kept.

It's probably fitting that the beginning of the recovery will be noted more by researchers and historians than the average American. We didn't realize we were in a downturn at first, either.

No one was really aware of the black economic hole that would change everything until the fall of 2008 when the stock market pulled itself apart and large financial institutions, like Lehmann Brothers, ceased to exist almost overnight. Foreclosure signs became more popular in some neighborhoods than dandelions, as entire blocks of houses stood empty.

But in December of 2007, there were only a few people warning us of the oncoming economic bomb.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who recently testified before the federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that none of this was his fault, had been saying before the market's greased slide that everything was still fine.

There were plenty of people who had been trying to warn us of what was coming, such as Brooksley Born, who was the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the late 1990's. Her reports to both Greenspan and the Clinton administration back then were largely ignored.

Perhaps it was too much to think that the average American would be able to see that by 2007 our entire economic system was being propped up by a steaming pile of debt.

Although, there was a moment when I heard about a neighbor who never found a job she couldn't quit, and yet had still managed to buy a large house. There were similar stories like that everywhere, and while it all may have seemed like some wonderful manifestation to the New Agers amongst us, we should collectively have known better.

However, we may have learned something from the year-and-a-half economic wipeout that will benefit us for generations to come. This past June, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that Americans were saving at a new high of six percent of disposable income. That means we weren't spending six percent of every dollar we were making, and were instead putting it aside.

Compare that to the less than one percent that we were at in 2005 at the height of the mortgage frenzy.

The idea that any of us even have any money to put aside at the end of the week is further proof of some kind of economic recovery slowly building up around us.

Not all of the current numbers are pretty and the climb out of the ditch is going to take some time. It may still be awhile before most of us feel secure about our place on the American economic ladder. But take heart, the rock is rolling in the right direction.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. Her latest book is the memoir, "A Place to Call Home." E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.