Three years into previous postwar recoveries, government spending had risen an average 12.5 percent. In the first three years after the 1981-82 recession, during President Ronald Reagan's first term, the economy got a jolt from a 15 percent increase in government spending and investment.
This time, state and local governments have been slashing spending — and jobs. And since passing President Barack Obama's $862 billion stimulus package in
2009, a divided Congress has been reluctant to try to help the economy with federal spending programs. Trying to contain the $11.1 trillion federal debt has been a higher priority.
Since June 2009, governments at all levels have slashed 642,000 jobs, the only time government employment has fallen in the three years after a recession. This long after the 1973-74 recession, by contrast, governments had added more than 1 million jobs.
Consumer spending has grown just 6.5 percent since the recession ended, feeblest in a postwar recovery. In the first three years of previous recoveries, spending rose an average of nearly 14 percent.
It's no mystery why consumers are being frugal. Many have lost access to credit, which fueled their spending in the 2000s. Home equity has evaporated and credit cards have been canceled. Falling home prices have slashed home equity 49 percent, from $13.2 trillion in 2005 to $6.7 trillion early this year.
Others are spending less because they're paying down debt or saving more. Household debt peaked at 126 percent of after-tax income in mid-2007 and has fallen to 107 percent, according to Haver Analytics. The savings rate has risen from 1.1 percent of after-tax income in 2005 to 4.4 percent in June. Consumers have cut credit card debt by 14 percent — to $865 billion — since it peaked at over $1 trillion in December 2007.
"We were in a period in which we borrowed too much," says Carl Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics. "We are now deleveraging. That's a process that slows us down."