Last week's report that the unemployment rate had fallen below 6 percent for the first time since July 2008 sparked a wave of optimistic talk about the job market regaining its health.
Today comes the reality check: The Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly report on job openings and labor turnover shows that in August there were 4.8 million job openings. That same month, there were 9.6 million unemployed people looking for work. Bottom line: For every job opening, on average, there were two jobseekers. As Elise Gould at the Economic Policy Institute points out in her analysis of the report, "job seekers so outnumbered job openings that about half of the unemployed were not going to find a job in August no matter what they did."
This is clearly better than in previous months, where we reported jobseeker-to-job vacancy rations that exceeded three to one. But it's one more sign that the job shortage should still dominate the national political debate, with conservatives in particular held account for how their obstruction has perpetuated economic misery for millions of people knocked off their feet by their failed policies and held down by their obstruction of the remedies we need.
The job shortage has consequences for people who already have jobs as well as for those who are trying to get jobs. In today's slack labor market, employers feel no pressure to raise wages. Indeed, average hourly earnings have risen 2 percent in the past year, which is to say almost not at all when the annual inflation rate of just under 2 percent is taken into account.
A slack labor market, combined with low inflation, is exactly the point at which government should be increasing its spending in ways that put people to work building the things we will need for the future – better transportation networks, improved school facilities, energy efficiency and conservation projects, and other investments that lay the foundation for future growth and shared prosperity.
But too many candidates have been cowed into not advancing an expansive economic agenda. In a way, it's understandable: Scandals and missteps by government entities at all levels have helped erode much of the public's faith that government can use the resources we entrust to it wisely. That eroded faith has helped the Republican Party sell its message that the way to produce jobs is to tax less, spend less and regulate less – even though it was regulating less that set the stage for the 2008 financial crash and it has been spending less than we should that has set the stage for today's virtually jobless recovery.
But we need candidates on the campaign trail who are prepared to educate and to change the direction in which the political winds are blowing. The reality is that the public understands that conservative economic solutions will continue to hold down wages for average people and put the interests of corporations ahead of the interests of workers. What they need to hear now is that there are two job seekers for every job because right-wingers in Congress won't allow the common-sense progressive policies that will put people back to work, with decent wages and hope for the future.