The former president reflects on the nation's's struggles since he exited the White House 10 years ago
ASPEN, Colo. -- During Bill Clinton's two terms as president, the median family income increased by 14 percent, the number of Americans in poverty declined by nearly 17 percent, and the number of children in poverty fell by almost one-fourth.
Since he left office in 2001, the median income has declined by 5 percent, or more than $2,500. The number of Americans in poverty has increased by 38 percent, or about 12 million. The number of children in poverty has spiked by one-third, or nearly 4 million. Few decades in American history have produced such economic losses.
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The Clinton-era gains derived, above all, from a dynamic labor market that produced nearly 23 million new jobs from February 1993 to February 2001. Conversely, the stagnation of America's lost decade since then is rooted in a breakdown of job growth: Incredibly, nearly 1.5 million fewer Americans are working today than in the first full month after Clinton left office. The Great Recession that followed the financial meltdown of 2008 vastly compounded the problem but didn't create it. Even while the economy grew from 2001 through 2007, it produced, on average, only about half as many jobs annually as it did during the 1990s.
Clinton didn't gloat about these trends when I interviewed him at the Aspen Ideas Festival last weekend, but he was well aware of them (even adding some of his own). And he had strong ideas about what went wrong in the years after he left office.
Economists looking to explain this decade of futility have offered a panorama of explanations. The bursting of the high-technology bubble and then the attacks of September 11, 2001, started the slide. President Bush's huge 2001 and 2003 tax cuts vaporized Clinton's federal budget surpluses while failing to ignite broadly shared prosperity. Increasing pressure from emerging economies led by China virtually eradicated job growth in industries (such as manufacturing) subject to international competition. Automation "hollowed out" low-skill jobs. The personal debt that Americans piled on to maintain their living standard as incomes declined combined with deregulatory decisions under Clinton and Bush to produce a financial system rotted with risk. After it crumbled, Bush's bank rescue plan and President Obama's stimulus prevented the economy from sliding into full-scale depression but failed to generate the self-sustaining recovery -- the "escape velocity" -- that their architects envisaged.