The Dow is up 30 percent since March, but here among the lagging indicators, times are tough and getting tougher.
The official unemployment rate stands at 9.4 percent, and it's still going up. In round numbers, that's 9 million people looking for work. The last time the unemployment rate was this high, "Thriller" -- sigh -- was at the top of the charts.
Employment, economists say, is a "lagging indicator." It's one of the last statistics to tilt as a recession cycles into recovery. Stock prices rise when a recovery is on the distant horizon. Then durable goods orders rise, inventories shrink, corporate profits increase. After that, the theory goes, companies start hiring.
That's when the recovery finds its way to you and me, the lagging indicators. The term has a hopeful, if clinical, ring to it. We may be lagging behind, but we'll catch up soon.
Americans felt that hope a couple of months ago, when Barack Obama's season of hope was still young. But an ABC News poll this week found that Americans' confidence in their personal finances dropped 13 points in the last six weeks, to their lowest point in 23 years.
It's no surprise. The Dow is up 30 percent since March, but here among the lagging indicators, times are tough and getting tougher.
The numbers of the unemployed are growing. Private companies have been steadily trimming their payrolls. Even mighty Harvard, the world's richest university, announced last week it will lay off 275 workers.
Government has been laying off people as well, adjusting to reduced tax revenue. More layoffs will come this week, with the start of the new fiscal year. Thousands of state workers, from state police to underpaid health care aides, will be getting pink slips.
But the unemployed are just the tip of the lagging indicators iceberg. A lot of companies -- including mine -- have chosen across-the-board pay cuts instead of more layoffs. Others -- including my wife's -- are cutting hours, which has the same effect on the family bottom line.
Then there are the self-employed: the architect who doesn't have anything to draw this month, the home-builder who can't get a bridge loan, the restaurant owner whose customers can't afford to eat out anymore. Even dentists are feeling the pinch, as people decide they'd rather chew their food on the other side than dip into their shrinking savings for a new crown.
That's how the economy works. One person's thrifty decision takes a bite out of someone else's revenue. When we tighten our belts, someone else goes hungry.
Meanwhile, the cost of everything is going up. The state budget crisis means higher fees for school activities, higher tuition at state colleges and, starting in August, a sales tax that is 25 percent higher. Even drowning your sorrows will cost you more, with the state sales tax applied for the first time to alcoholic beverages.
And have you noticed what's happening to the price of gas?
Something's got to give. Foreclosures dropped a little between April and May, but May was still the third-highest month ever, with more than 320,000 families losing their homes. Credit card defaults set a new record in May, with Bank of America's default rate topping 12 percent.
So we sit down with checkbook, computer and a stack of bills to do something we probably should have done long ago: Figure out where the money is going and put together a family budget.
It's no fun. Going to the grocery store? Bring the coupons, think generic and don't spend more than $100. Take the kids out to eat? OK, but just once a month. That's how my parents saved money when I was a kid. If you're not going to hit the gym at least three times a week, drop the membership.
Maybe we can do without renewing that magazine subscription. Read the newspaper online instead of paying for it? Please, don't go that far.
And we find things in the financial records we didn't know were there, like the $16 bank fee hidden in the "free checking" sales pitch, and the Mass. Pike tolls we haven't thought much about since getting FastLane.
Here's one that struck me: Between what we pay and what my wife's employer kicks in, our family health insurance policy -- an HMO, nothing fancy -- costs more than $16,000 a year.
And that's not counting the co-pays. The feds reported last week that the average person with employer-provided health insurance paid about $1,500 out of pocket last year above and beyond their premiums. That's a $300 increase since 2001. Premiums for employer-provided health care have nearly doubled since 2000.
Some Republicans in Washington are saying we can't afford to fix the health care system. I don't see how we can afford to let things keep going like this.
Some of those same politicians are also saying Congress should repeal the stimulus package that is only now starting to put people back to work. I guess they haven't had their pay cut and their stockbrokers are telling them the recession is over.
Those pols need to spend some time out here with the lagging indicators. These hard times are a long way from over.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.