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Grim economic outlook

From NBC's Wendy Jones
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As usual, Keith Hall (commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics) refused to be drawn into policy issues. He declined, for example, to answer questions on whether unemployment benefits should be extended. But the information he gave today's hearing by the Joint Economic Committee was grim.

Unemployment held steady (5%) but measured quarterly, the rate is increasing. In April, 20,000 jobs were lost, and the number of Americans working part-time for economic reasons rose by 306,000.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) put it succinctly: "We would not be fair if we did not say we are in tough times...some may have jobs but with stagnant wages...with the rising cost of gas and health care, they look for second jobs but can't find them....most of America is struggling to hang on."

Klobuchar cited a study by a Harvard economist stating that from 2000 to 2007, Americans are paying out $5,739 more each year (lost income plus price increases in gasoline, food, phone, health care, appliances): "Americans have faced the largest loss of wealth since the Great Depression."

According to the Minnesota senator, the problem is not just loss of jobs, but loss of hours and overtime. "When [employees] lose overtime, it's what puts them over the edge...for many of us...the loss of overtime of cut back in hours means the difference in paying the mortgage or not."

Hall testified that all regions were showing job loss, with the largest numbers in Michigan, Florida, California, Rhode Island, Ohio and Wisconsin. While job loss is the most common reason to be unemployed, returning veterans face hard times. As Klobuchar put it, "They were the first to stand in line to serve, and now are standing in unemployment lines."

And Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) pointed to telling differences by race. Between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008, job loss among whites rose from 4.3% to 4.4%; among African Americans the increase was 8.6 to 8.8%. But among Hispanics the jump was 5.9 to 6.5%.

In summary, Sen. Casey noted: "Here's the problem..the trauma...Americans are working as hard as they've ever worked, but they're not seeing a commensurate increase in their wages...and the cost of everything is going up."

Only two committee members were present: Klobuchar and Casey.