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NPR Launches American Indicators Series To Tackle Big Economic Stories

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been almost a year since the U.S. economy started its plunge. Well, President Biden says getting back on a path of economic growth is one of his top priorities. And so this week, we are launching a series to help us follow that path ahead. It's called American Indicators. And it is being reported by you, Ari. (Laughter) You've been all over this. This is your project.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sure is. Yeah (laughter).

KELLY: Which allows me to turn the tables. And I'm going to interview you about it for the next few minutes. I love the idea of personalizing the big economic stories that we hear every day. How did you decide that this would be, you know, a good project to take us on for these next few days?

SHAPIRO: It actually started before the presidential election when I realized that the path of the economic recovery, or lack thereof, was going to be one of the biggest stories of this year. And, you know, we're going to be inundated by numbers and graphs and charts and reports. And so I wanted to find a way to make these data points real and show what they mean in people's lives. So our team has spent the last few months trying to find just the right people. And we are calling them our American indicators. And we're going to introduce them to you over the course of this week.

KELLY: And we are already looking forward to it. How'd you find the people?

SHAPIRO: Well, we started by talking to a bunch of experts, smart people. We made a list of sectors of the economy that are going to be key to understanding what happens in the months ahead. So you could think about, like, hospitality or entertainment, you know, restaurants, hotels, concert venues, theaters. Across the country, they have either shut down entirely or struggled to stay open.

KELLY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And so one of our American indicators is a man named Bhavesh Patel, who has been working in his family's hotel business since he was a little kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BHAVESH PATEL: We all worked in the hotels. We helped clean rooms. I used to be a lifeguard at our property. We did maintenance. I did lawn care. You name it, I did it.

SHAPIRO: He now owns seven hotels. And this week, we're going to hear about what the year has been like for him. And perhaps more importantly in the months ahead as the economy gets better or doesn't, we're going to see what that means for him and his family business, you know, whether he decides to close one of the properties or rehire furloughed workers or, you know, if things go great, maybe even expand.

KELLY: It's such a big if - the if things go great - because we're talking, of course, about the worst recession since the Great Depression. Which makes me wonder, is everybody we're about to meet suffering, having a hard time right now?

SHAPIRO: Actually, no because one feature of this recession is that it has affected different parts of the economy very differently. And so while there are enormous problems with hunger and evictions, there are also bright spots. Like in Georgia, your home state, one of our American indicators is a woman named Lisa Winton, who owns a small manufacturing firm with her husband. It's called Winton Machine Company. And they make these bent metal tubes that go into everything from, like, outdoor furniture to refrigerators. And people who have had money to spend over the last year have in many cases been spending it on outdoor furniture and refrigerators.

KELLY: Hmm.

SHAPIRO: I mean, even Lisa Winton tried to get in the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LISA WINTON: When the pandemic first hit, I thought, huh, I guess I should stock up on some food. And I never had an extra refrigerator or an extra freezer. And so I said, well, I'm going to go get an extra freezer.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WINTON: I couldn't find one anywhere. And I...

SHAPIRO: Really?

WINTON: ...Actually reached out to one of our customers who make them. And I said...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WINTON: ...Do you guys have any in production? Like, are they going to be hitting the stores? And they were just so far behind.

SHAPIRO: She never did actually get that extra freezer. But her business is trying to hire more workers right now.

KELLY: Yeah, I can't wait to hear more of her story. OK. Just before we launch into all of the personal stories this week, give us the snapshot. How is the economy doing right now?

SHAPIRO: Well, for an answer to that question, I went to our in-house expert, senior economics correspondent Scott Horsley. And here's what he told me.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's a mixed picture. The overall economy has bounced back more quickly than many people expected early in the pandemic, but the job market is still a long way from healthy. Job growth slowed throughout the fall and really stalled in the winter as infections soared. We still have millions of people who are out of work. And ultimately, the economic recovery is going to depend on our ability to get control of the virus.

SHAPIRO: So whether that happens or not, we'll see what it looks like in the lives of the people we're meeting all this week.

KELLY: We shall be listening.

Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Giving us a little preview there of his new series, American Indicators. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.