The U.S. economy is poking out a toe in hopes of touching that rock bottom that everyone's been longing to find for nearly a year.
Since last fall, the nation's housing and financial markets fell off a cliff, the unemployment rate spiked past 9 percent, banks and lenders failed, two U.S. automakers slid into bankruptcy and the "greed is good" days of the '80s and '90s gave way to the new austerity. Goodbye, surf and turf; hello, tuna casserole.
Government officials at all levels jockeyed to adjust to falling tax revenues, even as the feds began doling out billions in stimulus money charged to Uncle Sam's credit card. Small businesses failed, large ones contracted and entrepreneurs found it harder to secure loans to start new ventures of any size.
Yet in recent weeks, there are signs of what economists call "green shoots" of life. The jobless rate, though still high, has steadied. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials are down 4 percent for the year but other indices have rebounded into the black. Consumer spending, incomes and household savings all went up a bit in the spring. The hope is that the global economy will show signs of growth by year's end.
Locally, there are similar positive signs. Hall County's housing market is easing back toward normal, with a 30 percent rise in building permits recorded in June, and similar upticks in the sale of existing homes. That matched trends nationwide, a good sign in that housing was one of the first canaries to keel over in the coal mine last year.
But even with that good news, the pain and cutbacks continue. It's clear that even when the economy begins its slow turnaround, like an ocean liner in a turbulent sea, it's going to take some time for everyone to feel the effects.
In particular, governments will be the last to bear fruit from those "green shoots" poking out of the frozen ground. Private markets can adapt to a slowdown by adjusting payroll and expenses on the fly, and thus can bounce back quicker as well.
Not so for governments, which must spend time debating every round of job and spending cuts. Only when private businesses and citizens regain their footing will the public sector benefit from a surge in sales and property tax revenues.
That's why local jurisdictions still are bouncing in the turbulence of the recession's first wave. Both the Gainesville and Hall County school boards have been forced to cut jobs and salaries to make ends meet. Gainesville's system still has a deficit of $3.6 million, while Hall has spent $8 million of its $13 million surplus.
Other Hall County employees face mandatory unpaid furlough days once a month. And last week, the Hall library system was forced to cut back on hours and money for new materials.
A round of state budget cuts from the last legislative session, coupled with an influx of federal stimulus money for various projects, helped balance the '09 budget, as required by the constitution. But as tax revenues fall — a 20 percent drop in April alone — lawmakers must trim even more for 2010.
That may result in a special legislative session to adapt the new budget to those figures, likely meaning less money for local governments and school districts that desperately need state funds.
Georgia workers trying to find jobs aren't feeling any better. The state's jobless rate hit an all-time high of 9.7 percent in May, and nearly half a million of our neighbors are looking for work. In Gainesville, the jobless rate is 8.9 percent.
So what's the bottom line? Is the news good or bad? Is the economy improving, getting worse or staying the same?
Even the experts aren't sure. That's why President Harry Truman said he wanted to find a one-handed economist, because they're always saying, "yes, but on the other hand ..."
Some sectors are bouncing back while others struggle on. That's going to be the case even in good times. To those who run car-repair businesses, liquor stores, video rentals and movie theaters, business has been great. Whether the sun is rising or setting depends on where you're standing, and the economy is no different.
Keep in mind that when the economy does move in the right direction on a larger scale, the ill effects of the downturn won't fade overnight. Some folks who lost jobs in their field of expertise may never return. Some who lost homes will remain renters. Many who lost money in investments, property, stocks and retirement accounts won't get back everything.
For now, we'll have to settle for small bits of good news and know that economies have always mimicked the tides: what goes out comes back in again.
We can only hope that the next upturn in the economy will find us wiser and better able to prepare for the next wave of tough times, comforted in knowing that the world's most resilient nation keeps proving that it can weather any crisis.