If all you did was watch the stock market go up and the unemployment rate go down, you might think it's just a matter of time before the economy finishes the healing process and good times return.
But you'd be wrong.
Although there's a little more hiring taking place today, America's labor market still has deep problems, and the ramifications are troubling, not just for now but far into the future. The fact that the Dow Jones industrial average has flown upward 8 percent this year merely underscores the stark difference between what makes investors happy and what eases job worries in American households.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke alluded to the situation last week when he expressed concerns about the labor market while also hinting at the potential to take more steps to encourage growth. He didn't go into detail about what he sees looming in the job market, but government data suggest that there are indeed serious problems that could be a weight on American lives, the economy and the nation's debt crisis for years to come.
Among them is a disconcerting statistic about the number of people participating in the workforce: It's the lowest in almost three decades, or just 58.6 percent of the population over age 16.
While the official unemployment rate has dropped to 8.3 percent, and stock analysts have been lauding the improvement to investment clients, millions of Americans have stopped looking for work or settled for anything that puts food on the table. The unemployment rate is calculated based on people who say they want work, so when people drop out they are no longer consider unemployed.
About 23.5 million Americans are either unemployed, so discouraged they've given up looking for jobs or have settled for part-time work while seeking more opportunity, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 14.9 percent of the 154.9 million-member labor force remains either unemployed or in part-time jobs they hope to replace with a better one.
But even those dreary numbers don't tell the full story about the overhang for the U.S. economy. Those who have lost jobs have struggled more than in any other recent recession to get work, and on average they have taken jobs paying 16 percent less than what they earned before the Great Recession started to play havoc with lives, according to research by Richard Johnson and Barbara Butrica of the Urban Institute.
The impact of lower pay could stick with a generation for a lifetime of work. Raises, after all, are based on existing pay, so typically if someone accepts a job paying less than previously, a bump in pay is likely to be calculated on a lower base.
The Urban Institute's researchers have found that among people who were unemployed for at least a month between December 2007 and June 2009, the median monthly pay when they found a job was $1,850, compared with $2,200 pre-unemployment.
Further, people pay taxes based on their pay. So lower pay means the federal government will have trouble raising the revenue it needs to get out from under the deficit and to pay for Social Security and Medicare, unless the economy grows more quickly than it has recently.
In addition, difficulty getting jobs has driven many people at age 62 to give up and start collecting Social Security, said Johnson. As a result, people who are typically at the peak of their pay levels are not paying taxes and are collecting Social Security earlier than expected.
For the Social Security system, that has meant demands for payments that have been higher than anticipated.
For the economy longer term, it could mean less spending.
Only 34 percent of people 62 and older got jobs within 12 months of becoming unemployed, and half stopped looking within nine months and took Social Security.
When they found jobs, people 50 to 61 took a 23 percent cut in pay, while younger workers accepted 11 percent less in their new job.
Now, as the government strains to cover the deficit and the Social Security and Medicare needs of 77 million baby boomers either in early retirement or on their way, younger workers could have less pay to devote to taxes. And generating growth could be difficult when so many people are getting by on pay limited by the recession.
Economists wonder if the blunt tools of the Federal Reserve can fix such distress, or whether simply throwing easy low-interest money at the system merely makes investors happy in the short run.