JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Shadowing central bankers and economists at the annual Federal Reserve conference here, a group of about 10 demonstrators pressed Fed Chair Janet Yellen not to yield to pressure to raise interest rates.
Carrying placards and green T-shirts embossed with the slogan “What recovery?” they said they’d come from New York, Missouri, Minnesota and elsewhere to draw attention to people left behind by the recovery and still unable to find work.
One demonstrator approached Yellen to press his point as she prepared to enter the opening reception Thursday night. With security guards hovering nearby, the two shook hands and spoke for about a minute before Yellen entered the closed-door gathering.
Yellen spokesman Doug Tillett said her staff would seek to arrange a meeting between the chair and the demonstrators back in Washington.
Their message was generally in sync with Yellen’s stance since she became Fed chair in February to keep rates low to help support a still-subpar economy. In a speech to the conference Friday, Yellen noted that while the unemployment rate has steadily dropped, other gauges of the U.S. job market have been harder to evaluate and may reflect continued weakness.
The timing of a Fed rate increase remains unclear, though many economists foresee an increase by mid-2015.
The demonstrators, including several who said they were unemployed or had settled for low-wage jobs, said they’d travelled here to encourage Yellen not to give in to those who say rates must be increased to avoid causing high inflation or other financial instability.
The demonstrator who approached Yellen before the opening reception was Ady Barkan of a group called the Center for Popular Democracy in New York.
“She said she understood what we were saying and that they were doing everything they can,” Barkan said Friday. “We’d like them to do more.”
He argued that the Fed should lower its target for unemployment and factor in whether wages are rising consistently before making any move to raise rates.
Tillett, the Yellen spokesman, said, “We’re certainly willing to meet with them and hear what they have to say.”
Asked whether there were security concerns in having demonstrators approach Yellen and seek to buttonhole other conference attendees, Tillett said, “We appreciate their freedom of expression.”
The demonstrators also met before the event with Esther George, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which sponsors the Jackson Hole event. Later, they managed to corner Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer during a break in the proceedings.
“We’re not in recovery,” Cee Cee Butler, a 34-year-old mother of two from Washington, D.C., told Fischer. “It may be fine on Wall Street, but on my streets, it’s not fine at all…There’s a lot of homeless people that live in my city, a lot of children that panhandle quarters.”
Butler said she works a minimum wage job at McDonald’s and receives food stamps but still can’t make ends meet. She said the trip to Wyoming — her first time aboard an airplane, she said — was paid for by donations from advocacy groups.
Another demonstrator, 42-year-old Kendra Brooks, told Fischer that she holds a master’s degree in business administration but has seen her income drop by more than half since losing her job as a program director at a non-profit about a year and a half ago.
Two weeks ago, Brooks said, she began working for Action United in Philadelphia, a community advocacy group. But it’s not comparable to her former job, she said, and “is like starting from scratch.”
“They heard what we said, but the outcome of that, in terms of interest rates, is still pending,” Brooks said of the group’s interactions with Yellen, George and Fischer. “This has been what my recovery looks like, and it’s a nightmare.”