CHICAGO — Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chairwoman, devoted more than an hour last week talking by telephone with three Chicago-area residents struggling to find jobs.
On Monday, she made their stories the centerpiece of the first public speech in her new job, delivering a strong statement about her concern over unemployment, her conviction that the Fed has the power to help, and her determination to do so.
“It is my hope,” Yellen told a conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, “that the courageous and determined working people I have told you about today, and millions more, will get the chance they deserve to build better lives.”
The speech offered a rebuttal to economists, including some Fed officials, who see evidence that the central bank is approaching the limits of its ability to improve labor-market conditions. It also leaned against recent indications that Fed officials might be considering a faster retreat from their economic-stimulus campaign.
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Yellen said that even now, almost five years after the official end of the Great Recession, it remains harder for Americans to find jobs than in the midst of a typical downturn. For those who are working, wages are rising more slowly than usual.
“There remains no doubt that the economy and the job market are not back to normal health,” Yellen said. “The recovery still feels like a recession to many Americans, and it also looks that way in some economic statistics.”
She said the Fed’s commitment to economic stimulus remained “strong.”
Yellen’s predecessors, Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan, opened their Fed tenures by seeking to reassure financial markets that they were determined to minimize inflation.
Bernanke made inflation the subject of his first speech as chairman in 2006. Now inflation is actually slower than the Fed would like, and Yellen mentioned it only briefly.
Yellen’s speech also was a departure from the typically dry and abstract style of her predecessors and most of her colleagues. Fed officials rarely discuss individual experiences in their speeches, preferring to talk about trends and patterns.
“I have described the experiences of Dorine, Jermaine and Vicki because they tell us important things that the unemployment rate alone cannot,” Yellen said. “They are a reminder that there are real people behind the statistics, struggling to get by and eager for the opportunity to build better lives.”
The core of Yellen’s speech was devoted to a central issue confronting Fed officials as they seek to calibrate their efforts to stimulate the economy.
Employment dropped sharply during the recession and has barely recovered. The unemployment rate has fallen because it counts only people who are looking for work, and a lot of people have given up entirely.
So the question is how much more monetary policy can do.
There is always some “natural” unemployment as people change jobs. Recessions can also increase “structural” unemployment if people who lose jobs lack the skills to find new ones, and some economists see evidence that much of current unemployment falls in this category.
But Yellen defended the use of continuing monetary stimulus, citing the “slack” in the economy or the portion of unemployment that can be fixed by stronger growth.
Yellen said she saw layers of evidence supporting the conclusion that much of the current weakness in the job market was cyclical and fixable.
The share of workers quitting jobs is unusually low, suggesting a paucity of better opportunities. The share of workers with part-time jobs is unusually high. And wages for all workers are rising very slowly, because an abundant supply of labor is limiting the pressure on employers to pay more.
The most obvious evidence of slack is the unemployment rate, which at 6.7 percent in September still stood about 2 percentage points above its pre-recession low.
Yellen on Monday related the story of Dorine Poole, who lost a job processing medical-insurance claims during the recession.
“When employers started hiring again, two years of unemployment became a disqualification,” she said. “Even those needing her skills and experience preferred less-qualified workers without a long spell of unemployment. That career, that part of Dorine’s life, has ended.”
Yellen also sought to highlight the importance of education in improving job prospects. She began her Chicago trip Sunday night with a duck dinner cooked and served by students in the culinary-arts program at the College of DuPage. The community college, west of Chicago, operates a training restaurant.
She visited a second community college after her Monday speech, touring a manufacturing classroom at Richard J. Daley College in southwest Chicago, where she watched students flip switches and make giant machines hum.
Yellen asked one recent graduate, Baker Gregory, how much he earned and then, impressed by the answer, whether jobs were available in his field.
“Depends on how the U.S. does,” Gregory said.
“Well, we’re doing our best,” Yellen responded.