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White House Struggles to Talk About Inflation, the ‘Problem From Hell’

WASHINGTON — President Biden was at a private meeting discussing student debt forgiveness this year when, as happens uncomfortably often these days, the conversation came back to inflation.

“He said with everything he does, Republicans are going to attack him and use the word ‘inflation,’” said Representative Tony Cárdenas, Democrat of California, referring to Mr. Biden’s meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in April. Mr. Cárdenas said Mr. Biden was aware he would be attacked over rising prices “no matter what issue we’re talking about.”

The comment underscored how today’s rapid price increases, the fastest since the 1980s, pose a glaring political liability that looms over every major policy decision the White House makes — leaving Mr. Biden and his colleagues on the defensive as officials discover that there is no good way to talk to voters about inflation.

The administration has at times splintered internally over how to discuss price increases and has revised its inflation-related message several times as talking points fail to resonate and new data comes in. Some Democrats in Congress have urged the White House to strike a different — and more proactive — tone ahead of the November midterm elections.

increased by 8.3 percent in the year through April, and data this week is expected to show inflation at 8.2 percent in May. Inflation averaged 1.6 percent annual gains in the five years leading up to the pandemic, making today’s pace of increase painfully high by comparison. A gallon of gas, one of the most tangible household costs, hit an average of $4.92 this week. Consumer confidence has plummeted as families pay more for everyday purchases and as the Fed raises interest rates to cool the economy, which increases the risk of a recession.

a series of confidential memos sent to Mr. Biden last year by one of his lead pollsters, John Anzalone. Inflation has only continued to fuel frustration among voters, according to a separate memo compiled by Mr. Anzalone’s team last month, which showed the president’s low approval rating on the economy rivaling only his approach to immigration.

wrote in a tweet that went viral this weekend.

The White House knows it is in a tricky position, and the administration’s approach to explaining inflation has evolved over time. Officials spent the early stages of the current price burst largely describing price pressures as temporary.

When it became clear that rising costs were lasting, administration officials began to diverge internally on how to frame that phenomenon. While it was clear that much of the upward pressure on prices came from supply chain shortages exacerbated by continued waves of the coronavirus, some of it also tied back to strong consumer demand. That big spending had been enabled, in part, by the government’s stimulus packages, including direct checks to households, expanded unemployment insurance and other benefits.

Some economists in the White House have begun to emphasize that inflation was a trade-off: To the extent that Mr. Biden’s stimulus spending spurred more inflation, it also aided economic growth and a faster recovery.

have claimed credit for strong economic growth.

“Some have a curious obsession with exaggerating impact of the Rescue Plan while ignoring the degree high inflation is global,” Gene Sperling, a senior White House adviser overseeing the implementation of the stimulus package, wrote on Twitter last week, adding that the law “has had very marginal impact on inflation.”

Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, acknowledged in an interview last week that there were some disagreements among White House economic officials when it came to how to talk about and respond to inflation, but he portrayed that as a positive — and as something that is not leading to any kind of dysfunction.

“If there wasn’t healthy disagreement, debate and people feeling comfortable bringing issues and ideas to the table, then I think we would be not serving the president and the public interest well,” he said.

He also pushed back on the idea that the administration was deeply divided on the March 2021 package’s aftereffects, saying in a separate emailed comment that “there is agreement across the administration that many factors contributed to inflation, and that inflation has been driven by elevated demand and constrained supply across the globe.”

How to portray the Biden administration’s stimulus spending is far from the only challenge the White House faces. As price increases last, Democrats have grappled with how to discuss their plans to combat them.

deficit reduction as a way to lower inflation and arguing that Republicans have a bad plan to deal with rising costs. Mr. Biden regularly acknowledges the pain that higher prices are causing and has emphasized that the problem of taming inflation rests largely with the Fed, an independent entity whose work he has promised not to interfere with.

The administration has also highlighted that inflation is widespread globally, and that the United States is better off than many other nations.

The renewed messaging comes as Mr. Biden and his top aides have grown increasingly concerned about the public’s negative views of the economy, according to an administration official. Economists within the administration are more sidelined when it comes to setting the tone on issues like inflation than in previous White Houses, another person familiar with the discussions said.

So far, the talking points have done little to change public perception or to mollify concerns on Capitol Hill, where some Democrats are pushing for the White House to find a more compelling story.

“There has to be more of a laser focus on the economy, a bolder message, a clearer story,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who wrote a New York Times opinion piece last week saying that Democrats need a more ambitious plan for fighting inflation. He added that “rhetoric about ‘Well, we’re doing really well’ does not capture the profound sense of anxiety that Americans feel.”

Part of the difficulty is that there is only so much politicians can do to fight price increases.

suspended a ban on summertime sales of higher-ethanol gasoline blends to try to temper price increases at the pump, spurring frustration among climate activists still angry over the collapse of the president’s climate and social-spending package.

Talks over whether to roll back Trump-era tariffs on Chinese goods have also gotten caught in the inflation maw. Ms. Yellen has said she supports relaxing tariffs to help ease prices, but other Democrats are wary that removing them would make Mr. Biden look weak on China.

Inflation is also influencing conversations about whether to forgive student loan debt, one of Mr. Biden’s key campaign promises. Economists in the administration think that loan forgiveness would, at most, push inflation up a little bit by giving people with outstanding student debt more financial wiggle room. But some economists in the administration’s orbit have expressed concern about the possibility of doing something that could stimulate demand — even slightly — at a moment when it is already hot.

To help mute the inflationary effect, forgiveness would most likely be accompanied by a resumption of interest payments on all student loans that have been paused since the pandemic.

For now, the administration is considering forgiving at least $10,000 for borrowers in a certain income range, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Cárdenas said that Mr. Biden knew he would be attacked over inflation but that he did not think the issue would prevent the president from canceling at least $10,000 worth of debt.

“Will it affect him going beyond that? It may,” he said.

Jonathan Martin contributed reporting.

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Biden Says Spending Bill Will Slow Inflation. But When?

Rocketing inflation has become a headache for U.S. consumers, and President Biden has a go-to prescription. He says a key way to help relieve increasing prices is to pass a $1.85 trillion collection of spending programs and tax cuts that is currently languishing in the Senate.

A wide range of economists agree with the president — but only in part. They generally accept his argument that in the long run, the bill and his infrastructure plan could make businesses and their workers more productive, which would help to ease inflation as more goods and services are produced across the economy.

But many researchers, including a forecasting firm that Mr. Biden often cites to support the economic benefits of his proposals, say the bill is structured in a way that could add to inflation next year, before prices have had time to cool off.

Some economists and lawmakers worry about the timing, arguing that the risk of fueling more inflation when it has reached record highs outweighs the potential benefits of passing a big spending bill that could help to keep prices in check while addressing other social goals. Prices have picked up by 6.2 percent over the past year, the fastest pace in 31 years and far above the Federal Reserve’s inflation target.

Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, has questioned whether high and rising prices should persuade lawmakers to tone down their ambitions.

“West Virginians are concerned about rising inflation,” he said on Twitter last week. “We cannot throw caution to the wind & continue to pile on debt that our country can’t afford.”

Democrats preparing to push it to a House vote as early as next week. But timing is uncertain in the Senate, where a vote is likely to be changed or delayed in response to Mr. Manchin’s concerns.

The extent to which Mr. Biden’s $1.85 trillion bill exacerbates inflation largely depends on how much it stimulates the economy and whether Americans increase their spending as a result of the legislation — and when all of that occurs.

Many economists say it could create a short-term stimulus because the plan is structured to raise money gradually by taxing wealthier Americans, who are less likely to spend each additional dollar they have, and redistribute it quickly to people who earn less and are more likely to spend newfound cash.

Because of the difference in timing between when the government spends money and when it starts to bring in more revenue, the bill is expected to pump money into the economy in its early years. Moody’s Analytics — the firm that the White House typically cites when arguing in favor of its legislation — estimates that the government will spend $163 billion more on the package than it takes in next year. And the redistribution could make the money more potent as economic stimulus.

“The spending is designed to go to the people who are more likely to spend it than to save it,” said Ben Ritz, the director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Center for Funding America’s Future. But more than any specific program, “the bigger inflationary issue is the math.”

White House economists have countered those arguments. If the bill passes, they say, it would do relatively little to spur increased consumer spending next year and not nearly enough to fully offset the loss of government stimulus to the economy as pandemic aid expires. That the program spends more heavily next year is a feature, they say, because it will partly blunt the economic drag as fiscal help fades. They note that the bill is intended to be offset completely by tax increases and other revenue savings.

And they argue that by increasing the economy’s capacity to churn out goods and services, the president’s infrastructure plan and his broader program could both help to moderate costs over time.

Mr. Summers has argued.

There is less economic or political debate about Mr. Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which cleared Congress last week and which the president will sign on Monday. Economists — including conservative ones — largely agree that it is likely to eventually expand the capacity of the economy, and that it is small and spread out enough that it will not meaningfully fuel faster inflation in the near term.

Among Democrats, there is widespread support for the economic ambitions contained in the administration’s broader spending bill, which aims to create more equity for low- and middle-class earners and a bigger safety net for working parents. But the measure is drawing more complicated reviews when it comes to its immediate effect on inflation.

Economists at Moody’s found in a recent analysis that the administration’s full agenda would slightly increase inflation in 2022, though they did not expect the program to ultimately raise it because of benefits that would later ease supply constraints. It estimates that with the infrastructure bill alone, inflation will be running at a 2.1 percent annual rate by the final quarter of next year. If the larger spending bill also passes, that grows to 2.5 percent.

But Moody’s baseline assumption that inflation will moderate by the end of next year is relatively optimistic. Bank of America’s economics team said that core consumer prices would still rise at a 3.2 percent rate at the end of next year, incorporating the assumption that Mr. Biden’s plan passes.

companies scramble for workers, prices rise and supply chains struggle to keep pace with booming demand, this is the wrong moment to hit the economy with any added juice.

“We don’t have a lot of spare capacity,” said Kristin J. Forbes, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We certainly don’t have a lot of spare workers today.”

Inflation looms more significantly in the near term because it is currently high, and if it remains that way for an extended period, consumers could change their behaviors and expectations, locking in faster gains. People who worry about the proposals say that 2022 is the wrong time to hand households more money.

Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said she was unsure whether the package would fuel inflation. But given the current pace of price increases, “you have to be more careful than you would be otherwise.”

The White House says the provisions of the bill that put money in families’ pockets, such as child care help, are not simple stimulus. They will allow caregivers into the labor market, they argue, an investment in the economy’s future that will allow it to produce more with time.

That makes the new program different from the spending passed earlier this year. The Biden administration increasingly acknowledges that sending households checks and offering expanded unemployment insurance supplemented savings, and that as households had more wherewithal to spend it helped to drive up prices.

Mr. Biden said in Baltimore on Wednesday. But the White House contends that this program is not the same as the previous package, and that it will make the price situation better, not worse.

“According to the economic experts, this bill is going to ease inflationary pressures,” the president said on Wednesday.

Still, the 17 Nobel Prize-winning economists that the White House regularly cites have specified that capacity improvements will ease inflation over time rather than imminently.

“Because this agenda invests in long-term economic capacity and will enhance the ability of more Americans to participate productively in the economy,” they wrote, “it will ease longer-term inflationary pressures.”

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October 2021 CPI: Inflation Rose at Fastest Rate Since 1990

Consumer prices surged at the fastest pace in more than three decades in October as fuel costs picked up, supply chains remained under pressure and rents moved higher — worrying news for economic policymakers at the Federal Reserve and for the Biden White House.

Overall prices rose 6.2 percent over the past 12 months, the fastest pace since 1990, and inflation began to accelerate again on a monthly basis.

Prices rose across the board in October, at deli counters and restaurants and car dealerships. The acceleration is an unwelcome development for the Biden administration, which had continually pointed out that while price gains were faster than usual, they were slowing down from rapid summertime readings. It is also a policy challenge for the Fed, which is charged with maintaining stable prices and fostering maximum employment.

Inflation rates remain far faster than the 2 percent annual gains the Fed aims for on average over time. While the Fed sets its goal using a separate measure of inflation — the Personal Consumption Expenditures index — that, too, has picked up sharply this year. The C.P.I. reports come out faster, and help feed into the central bank’s favored gauge, so they are closely watched by economists and Wall Street investors.

expressing concern about the impact more federal spending could have on inflation.

Part of the dilemma is that inflation is not moderating, as many economists had expected it would by the end of 2021. Instead, it jumped to 0.9 percent last month from September, a Labor Department report showed, faster than the prior month’s increase of 0.4 percent and well above economists’ expectations. So-called core prices, which strip out products like food and fuel, also climbed more quickly.

Administration and Fed officials alike have maintained that rapid inflation should eventually fade. But they have had to revise how quickly that might happen: Supply chains remain badly snarled, and demand for goods is holding up and helping to fuel higher prices. As wages begin to rise in many sectors amid labor shortages, there are reasons to expect that some businesses might charge their customers more to cover climbing worker costs. October’s data did nothing to alleviate that growing sense of unease.

Shortages of used and new cars have sent prices skyrocketing, supply chain issues have made furniture costlier, labor shortages are raising some service-industry price tags, and rents are rising after a weak 2020. In the headline data, food and fuel prices have picked up sharply.

participation in the job market shows little sign of picking up, fueling wage gains, Ms. Meyer said.

“It’s obviously getting uncomfortable for the Fed,” she said.

Officials have avoided overreacting to an inflation surge driven by supply chain problems, worried that doing so would hurt the economy unnecessarily. If the trends persist, they will most likely come under growing pressure to hasten their plans to pull back economic support by ending their stimulative bond-buying program and raising interest rates from rock bottom sooner and more quickly.

Mary C. Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said inflation had been “eye popping” but cautioned that the Fed was also paying attention to the many jobs still missing from the labor market. In an interview with Bloomberg Television on Wednesday, Ms. Daly said it was too soon to suggest that officials would need to speed up their process of slowing — or tapering — monthly bond purchases beyond the pace the Fed announced last week. Tapering that buying is a precursor to rate increases.

“It would be very premature to start asking whether we should quicken the taper,” Ms. Daly said.

Markets took note of the inflation figures, with stocks slowly sinking throughout the day. A key measure of the bond market’s expectations for inflation over the next five years rose to a new high of 3.10 percent shortly after the report was issued. That means investors expected inflation to average about 3 percent a year for the next five years, essentially, far higher than any time in the decade before the pandemic hit.

investors have come to more heavily expect a rate increase by the central bank’s meeting in June 2022.

For policymakers and investors alike, it is difficult to predict when price jumps might moderate. Many are intertwined with the reopening of businesses from state and local lockdowns meant to contain the coronavirus; the economy has never gone through such a widespread shutdown and restart before.

But officials have become wary that uncomfortably high inflation might linger. Consumers have been increasing their expectations for future price gains. Households expecting to face climbing grocery, department store and gas bills might demand pay raises — setting off an upward cycle in which wages and prices push one another ever upward.

Key measures of price expectations haven’t climbed into the danger zone yet, officials including Richard H. Clarida, the Fed’s vice chair, have said. And there are still reasons to believe that today’s price pop will fade. Households are sitting on huge savings stockpiles amassed during the pandemic, but should theoretically spend those down now that government support programs like expanded unemployment insurance have fully or mostly lapsed.

If demand moderates, it could open the door for a return to normal, as supply chains catch up. To the extent that suppliers have responded to this moment by ramping up their productive capacity, some prices might even fall.

Supply chain experts have been warning that some of the shortages driving up costs might get worse before they get better, especially headed into the busy holiday shopping season, which could further clog backed-up ports and understaffed trucking routes. The longer that prices for washing machines and electronics soar, the more risk there is that consumers will begin to plan for higher prices.

closely watched index that tracks wholesale vehicle costs. After that, they’re unlikely to actually fall; they will just increase less quickly than their current breakneck pace.

At #1 Cochran Subaru Butler County, a car dealership in western Pennsylvania, the general sales manager, Jim Adams, is offering a $500 bonus to customers who return leased vehicles early, and buying cars that people bring in for repairs. He is asked a few times a day when things might normalize.

“Until the manufacturers can get back up to speed, used car prices will continue to grow,” Mr. Adams said in an email.

As industries wait for balance to return, Republicans are pointing fingers at Mr. Biden and Democrats, saying the stimulus checks they provided to households and other pandemic-related benefits are responsible for the rise in prices.

The White House has tried to emphasize that prices are jumping while the country is staging a rapid economic rebound from a once-in-a-century disaster. And Mr. Biden has said his new policies, including an infrastructure bill that cleared Congress last week, will over time expand capacity and help to cool inflation.

But the president made clear on Wednesday that the onus for taming inflation rested with the Fed. “I want to re-emphasize my commitment to the independence of the Federal Reserve to monitor inflation, and take steps necessary to combat it,” Mr. Biden said in his statement.

At the Fed, some officials are already warning that the central bank may need to pull back economic support faster. Doing that could cool down prices by tempering demand, but would also weaken the job market when millions remain out of work compared with prepandemic employment levels.

recent news conference. “There is still ground to cover to reach maximum employment.”

Fed officials have been careful to acknowledge that high prices can be hard for consumers to absorb, especially for goods and services that households consume regularly.

Gasoline prices were 49.6 percent higher in October compared with a year earlier, and fuel oil, which is used for industrial and domestic heating, was up 59 percent.

Food at home cost 5.4 percent more this October than a year earlier, and some categories, including steak and bacon, posted gains in excess of 20 percent.

“I expect lots of eyeballs were bulging out of their sockets when they saw the number come in,” Seema Shah, chief strategist at Principal Global Investors, wrote in a note reacting to the October data. “Inflation is clearly getting worse before it gets better.”

Reporting was contributed by Ana Swanson, Talmon Joseph Smith, Matthew Phillips and Clifford Krauss.

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Winter Heating Bills Loom as the Next Inflation Threat

Last week, the Biden administration released 90 percent of the $3.75 billion in funds dedicated to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provided an average of $439 to more than five million families the year before the pandemic. It received $4.5 billion in additional emergency grants this year. Usually, funding for the program isn’t released until all budget items for the fiscal year are approved, but Congress recently made an exception as cold months approached and sparring over spending bills continued.

Mr. Wolfe’s group has urged Congress to include $5 billion more for the program in the social safety net package being negotiated in Washington.

The increase in home heating costs is sure to hover over economic debates in Washington about inflation. White House allies, fighting to push through the president’s sweeping agenda, assert that the current surge in consumer prices mostly reflects pandemic disruptions that will dissipate next year. Federal Reserve officials, who have been trying to put in place a policy framework less keenly sensitive to inflation, will be pushed to gauge whether that contention is well founded.

The latest outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests a decent chance of a milder-than-average winter. But according to projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, if winter is somewhat colder than usual, energy bills could rise 15 percent for households heated by electricity, 50 percent for those depending on natural gas and 59 percent for those that mostly use heating oil. Propane users would be in for the biggest blow — a 94 percent increase, or potentially hundreds of dollars over the six-month heating season.

As with other price shocks stemming from the pandemic, the pain will be particularly acute for those of limited means. Twenty-nine percent of those surveyed by the Census Bureau have reported reducing or forgoing household expenses to pay an energy bill in the last year.

Before the pandemic, Jamillia Grayson, 43, of Buffalo, had a successful event-planning business. Her work dried up, and even with unemployment insurance, she couldn’t meet household expenses while supporting her 8-year-old daughter, who has sickle cell anemia, as well as an older aunt, who depends on a home oxygen tank and lives with them.

Electricity and gas bills piled up throughout this year, and by the end of the summer, she owed $3,000, she said.

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October 2021 Jobs Report: Gain of 531,000 Offers Brighter Picture

“It’s a euphemism, but something the Fed takes very seriously,” said Diane Swonk, the chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. If the current surge in prices does not abate by early next year, and if both internal and external pressure to prioritize price stability takes precedence, then “patience may run out sooner than people think,” she said — and sooner than Mr. Powell, the Fed chair, would like.

Hiring has seesawed this year along with the pandemic, especially in vulnerable sectors like hospitality and retail, where workers must be face-to-face with customers. Because many white-collar employees can work remotely, they have consistently fared better.

In October, leisure and hospitality employment rose by 164,000, while professional and business services added 100,000 jobs. Despite the supply chain shortages, manufacturers hired 60,000 workers, and transportation and warehousing saw a jump of 54,000.

“We are optimistic,” said Lou Rassey, the co-founder and chief executive of Fast Radius, a Chicago-based company that develops software for manufacturers and makes components for items like medical devices and electric vehicles.

Fast Radius brought aboard about 25 people last month, including factory workers, software developers and technologists. It has actually benefited from the knots in global supply chains. In view of all the trouble that can arise when one link in a chain goes haywire, some U.S.-based industrial customers are moving production closer to home.

“We can produce parts locally that traditionally were made halfway around the world,” Mr. Rassey said.

Jeanna Smialek, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Ben Casselman contributed reporting.

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The Economic Rebound Is Still Waiting for Workers

Some businesses seem determined to wait them out. Wages have risen, but many employers appear reluctant to make other changes to attract workers, like flexible schedules and better benefits. That may be partly because, for all their complaints about a labor shortage, many companies are finding that they can get by with fewer workers, in some instances by asking customers to accept long waits or reduced service.

“They’re making a lot of profits in part because they’re saving on labor costs, and the question is how long can that go on,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist for the employment site ZipRecruiter. Eventually, she said, customers may get tired of busing their own tables or sitting on hold for hours, and employers may be forced to give into workers’ demands.

Some businesses are already changing how they operate. When Karter Louis opened his latest restaurant this year, he abandoned the industry-standard approach to staffing, with kitchen workers earning low wages and waiters relying on tips. At Soul Slice, his soul-food pizza restaurant in Oakland, Calif., everyone works full time, earns a salary rather than an hourly wage, and receives health insurance, retirement benefits and paid vacation. Hiring still hasn’t been easy, he said, but he isn’t having the staffing problems that other restaurants report.

Restaurant owners wondering why they can’t find workers, Mr. Louis said, need to look at the way they treated workers before the pandemic, and also during it, when the industry laid off millions.

“The restaurant industry didn’t really have the back of its people,” he said.

Still, better pay and benefits alone won’t bring back everyone who has left the job market. The steepest drop in labor force participation came among older workers, who faced the greatest risks from the virus. Some may return to work as the health situation improves, but others have simply retired.

And even some nowhere near retirement have made ends meet outside a traditional job.

When Danielle Miess, 30, lost her job at a Philadelphia-area travel agency at the start of the pandemic, it was in some ways a blessing. Some time away helped her realize how bad the job had been for her mental health, and for her finances — her bank balance was negative on the day she was laid off. With federally supplemented unemployment benefits providing more than she made on the job, she said, she gained a measure of financial stability.

Ms. Miess’s unemployment benefits ran out in September, but she isn’t looking for another office job. Instead, she is cobbling together a living from a variety of gigs. She is trying to build a business as an independent travel agent, while also doing house sitting, dog sitting and selling clothes online. She estimates she is earning somewhat more than the roughly $36,000 a year she made before the pandemic, and although she is working as many hours as ever, she enjoys the flexibility.

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September 2021 Jobs Report Shows Gain of Just 194,000 as Delta Persisted

Job growth slowed to the year’s weakest pace last month as the latest coronavirus wave dashed hopes of an imminent return to normal for the U.S. economy.

Employers added just 194,000 jobs in September, the Labor Department said Friday, down from 366,000 in August — and far below the increase of more than one million in July, before the highly contagious Delta variant led to a spike in coronavirus cases across much of the country. Leisure and hospitality businesses, a main driver of job growth earlier this year, added fewer than 100,000 jobs for the second straight month.

“Employment is slowing when it should be picking up because we’re still on the course set by the virus,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist for the accounting firm Grant Thornton.

for the Federal Reserve, which is weighing when to begin pulling back support for the economy.

It is possible that the recent slowdown is a Delta-driven blip and will soon fade — or, indeed, may already be largely in the past. The data released on Friday was collected in mid-September, when the Delta wave was near its peak. Since then, cases and hospitalizations have fallen in much of the country, and more timely data from private-sector sources suggests that economic activity has begun to rebound. If those trends continue, people on the sidelines could return to the labor force, and hiring should begin to pick up.

“This report is a glance in the rearview mirror,” said Daniel Zhao, an economist at the career site Glassdoor. “There should be some optimism that there should be a reacceleration in October.”

But it is also possible that the damage done by the pandemic will take longer to heal than economists had hoped. Supply-chain disruptions have been unexpectedly persistent, and shifts in consumer behavior during the pandemic may not soon reverse. In surveys, many workers say they are reconsidering their priorities and do not want to return to their old ways of working.

Expanded unemployment benefits, which many businesses blamed for discouraging people from looking for work, ended nationwide early last month. Schools reopened in person in much of the country, which should have made it easier for parents to return to work. Rising vaccination rates were meant to make reluctant workers feel safe enough to resume their job searches. As recently as August, many economists circled September as the month when workers would flood back into the job market.

Instead, the labor force shrank by nearly 200,000 people. The pandemic’s resurgence delayed office reopenings, disrupted the start of the school year and made some people reluctant to accept jobs requiring face-to-face interaction. At the same time, preliminary evidence suggests that the cutoff in unemployment benefits has done little to push people back to work.

“I am a little bit puzzled, to be honest,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist for the investment bank Jefferies. “We all waited for September for this big flurry of hiring on the premise that unemployment benefits and school reopening would bring people back to the labor force. And it just doesn’t seem like we’re seeing that.”

Ms. Markowska said more people might begin to look for work as the Delta variant eased and as they depleted savings accumulated earlier in the pandemic. But some people have retired early or have found other ways to make ends meet and may be slow to return to the labor force, if they come back at all.

In the meantime, people available to work are enjoying a rare moment of leverage. Average earnings rose 19 cents an hour in September and are up more than $1 an hour over the last year, after a series of strong monthly gains. Pay has risen even faster in some low-wage sectors.

Many businesses are finding that higher wages alone aren’t enough to attract workers, said Becky Frankiewicz, president of the Manpower Group, a staffing firm. After years of expecting employees to work whenever they were needed — often with no set schedule and little notice — companies are finding that workers are now setting the terms.

“They get to choose when, where and in what duration they’re working,” Ms. Frankiewicz said. “That is a role reversal. That is a structural change in the workers’ economy.”

Arizmendi Bakery, a cooperative in San Rafael, Calif., recently raised its wages by $3 an hour, by far the biggest increase in its history. But it is still struggling to attract applicants heading into the crucial holiday season.

“There are many, many, many more businesses hiring than there used to be, so we’re competing with many other businesses that we weren’t competing with before,” said Natalie Baddorf, a baker and one of the owners.

The bakery has managed to hire a few people, including one who began this week. But other workers have given their notice to leave. The bakery, which has been operating on reduced hours since the pandemic began, now has enough business to return to its original hours, but cannot find enough labor to do so.

“We’re talking about cloning ourselves,” Ms. Baddorf said.

Jeanna Smialek and Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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Poverty in U.S. Declined Thanks to Government Aid, Census Report Shows

The share of people living in poverty in the United States fell to a record low last year as an enormous government relief effort helped offset the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression.

In the latest and most conclusive evidence that poverty fell because of the aid, the Census Bureau reported on Tuesday that 9.1 percent of Americans were living below the poverty line last year, down from 11.8 percent in 2019. That figure — the lowest since records began in 1967, according to calculations from researchers at Columbia University — is based on a measure that accounts for the impact of government programs. The official measure of poverty, which leaves out some major aid programs, rose to 11.4 percent of the population.

The new data will almost surely feed into a debate in Washington about efforts by President Biden and congressional leaders to enact a more lasting expansion of the safety net that would extend well beyond the pandemic. Democrats’ $3.5 trillion plan, which is still taking shape, could include paid family and medical leave, government-supported child care and a permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit.

Liberals cited the success of relief programs, which were also highlighted in an Agriculture Department report last week that showed that hunger did not rise in 2020, to argue that such policies ought to be expanded. But conservatives argue that higher federal spending is not needed and would increase the federal debt while discouraging people from working.

difficult to assess changes in health coverage last year. Census estimates conflicted with other government counts, and officials acknowledged problems with data collection during the pandemic.

federal supplement to state unemployment benefits lapsed. She fell behind on bills, setting in motion events that ultimately left her family homeless for two months this year.

New aid programs adopted this year, including the expanded Child Tax Credit, helped Ms. Long, who moved into a new home last month. She said she had noticed improvements in her children, particularly her 5-year-old son.

“It was bad, but it could have been so much worse, and we have come out the other side once again unbroken,” Ms. Long said.

By the government’s official definition, the number of people living in poverty jumped by 3.3 million in 2020, to 37.2 million, among the biggest annual increases on record. But economists have long criticized that definition, which dates to the 1960s, and said it did a particularly poor job of reflecting reality last year.

7.5 million people lost unemployment benefits this month after Congress allowed expansions of the program to lapse.

Jen Dessinger, a photographer who lives in New York City and Los Angeles, said work dried up abruptly at the start of the pandemic. A freelancer, she didn’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits but eventually received help under a federal program created last year to help people who fell outside the regular system.

Now that program has ended in the middle of another surge in coronavirus cases. Ms. Dessinger said a single positive coronavirus case could shut down a photo shoot. “It’s made it a more desperate situation,” she said.

Democrats on Tuesday said experiences like Ms. Dessinger’s showed both the potential for government aid to protect people from financial ruin, and the need for a more expansive, permanent safety net that can support people in bad and good times.

A White House economist, Jared Bernstein, said on Tuesday that the new poverty data should encourage lawmakers to enact the $3.5 trillion Democratic measure that includes much of Mr. Biden’s economic agenda, which the administration argues will create more and better-paying jobs.

“It’s one thing to temporarily lift people out of poverty — hugely important — but you can’t stop there,” said Mr. Bernstein, a member of Mr. Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. “We have to make sure that people don’t fall back into poverty after these temporary measures abate.”

“reckless taxing and spending spree.”

Conservative policy experts said that although some expansion of government aid was appropriate during the pandemic, those programs should be wound down, not expanded, as the economy healed.

“Policymakers did a remarkable job last March enacting CARES and other legislation, lending to businesses, providing loan forbearance, expanding the safety net,” Scott Winship, a senior fellow and the director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative group, wrote in reaction to the data, referring to an early pandemic aid bill, which included around $2 trillion in spending. “But we should have pivoted to other priorities thereafter.”

Jason DeParle and Margot Sanger-Katz contributed reporting.

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August Jobs Report is Concerning News for Fed

Disappointing August jobs numbers intensified the economic uncertainty caused by the Delta variant, putting pressure on the Federal Reserve as it considers when to reduce its policy support and on the White House as it tries to get more Americans vaccinated.

Fed officials and President Biden had been looking for continued improvement in the job market, but the Labor Department reported on Friday that employers added just 235,000 jobs in August — far fewer than projected and a sign that the ongoing coronavirus surge may be slowing hiring.

“There’s no question that the Delta variant is why today’s job report isn’t stronger,” Mr. Biden said in remarks at the White House. “I know people were looking, and I was hoping, for a higher number.”

A one-month slowdown is probably not enough to upend the Fed’s policy plans, but it does inject a dose of caution. It also will ramp up scrutiny of upcoming data as the central bank debates when to take its first steps toward a more normal policy setting by slowing purchases of government-backed bonds.

speech last week that as of the central bank’s July meeting, he and most of his colleagues thought they could start reducing the pace of asset purchases this year if the economy performed as they expected.

sharp pullback in hotel and restaurant hiring, which tends to be particularly sensitive to virus outbreaks. The participation rate, a closely watched metric that gauges what share of the population is working or looking, stagnated.

But there were other signs that underlying demand for workers remained strong. Wages continued to rise briskly, suggesting that employers were still paying up to lure people into work. Over the last three months, job gains have averaged 750,000, which is a strong showing. And the unemployment rate continued to decline in spite of the weakness in August, slipping to 5.2 percent.

4.2 percent in the year through July — well above the 2 percent average that officials aim to achieve over time.

Officials widely expect those price gains to slow as the economy returns to normal and supply chain snarls clear up. But they are monitoring consumer inflation expectations and wages keenly: Prices could keep going up quickly if shoppers begin to accept higher prices and workers come to demand more pay.

That’s why robust wage gains in the August report stuck out to some economists. Average hourly earnings climbed by 0.6 percent from July to August, more than the 0.3 percent economists in a Bloomberg survey had forecast. Over the past year, they were up 4.3 percent, exceeding the expected 3.9 percent.

The fresh data put the Fed “in an uncomfortable position — with the slowdown in the real economy and employment growth accompanied by signs of even more upward pressure on wages and prices,” wrote Paul Ashworth, the chief North America economist at Capital Economics.

referred to that consideration in a footnote to last week’s speech.

“Today we see little evidence of wage increases that might threaten excessive inflation,” he said.

Plus, it is unclear whether pay gains will remain robust as workers return. While it is hard to gauge how much enhanced unemployment benefits discouraged workers from taking jobs, and early evidence suggests that the effect was limited, a few companies have signaled that labor supply has been improving as they sunset.

Other trends — the end of summer and the resumption of in-person school and day care — could allow parents who have been on the sidelines to return to the job search, though that might be foiled if Delta keeps students at home.

“There’s still so much disruption, it’s hard for businesses and workers to make plans and move forward when you don’t know what’s coming around the next bend,” said Julia Coronado, the founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives, adding that this is a moment of “delicate transition.”

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