Behind the Job Numbers, Millions Are Being Left Behind

Richard Eskow

A team of political scientists, writing in the Washington Post, concluded that “Trump supporters who are struggling economically perceive U.S. economic performance overall to be much worse than it actually is.”

Those voters believed that the unemployment rate is three times higher than the official number, and these new figures aren’t likely to change that.

“It is noteworthy,” the researchers added, “that the impact of additional factual information about the national rate did not move their perceptions much.”

They may not know the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but they know their own economic reality and those of their peers and their communities. So do the African-Americans, women, manufacturing workers, and other workers who confront economic injustice on a daily basis.

These diverse groups of working people could become a new coalition for change. Where are the reports that speak to, and for, them?

By the Numbers

The latest employment report looks good at first glance. Hourly wages rose 2.8 percent year over year, slightly higher than recent gains and the largest increase since 2009. The jobless rate fell by a tenth of one percent to 4.9 percent. The “U-6” figure of jobless workers, people seeking work, and those working fewer hours than they’d like, is nearly double the official number. But it fell slightly too.

And yet, underneath these favorable numbers, a darker story is being told. The labor force participation rate – the number of Americans who are working or are actively looking for a job – slipped by a small fraction and remains near its lowest level in four decades. Many workers have simply been left out of the job economy.

The centrifugal force of inequality is tearing our economy in two, creating a small aristocracy and a permanent underclass. As the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) recently noted, “Wage inequality has grown tremendously over the longer-term period from 1979 through 2015.”

The 161,000 jobs added last month is lower than economists’ modest projections and the latest three-month average of 176,000. Average job growth is actually down from recent years. The manufacturing sector lost 9,000 jobs as the overall trade deficit reached $36.4 billion in September.

Adjusting for the average number of hours worked, that hourly wage gain remains pretty much unchanged from previous gains. And it includes the highest-paid workers. “Private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees,” a category that covers 80 percent of all workers, saw a lower wage increase of 2.1 percent, roughly half of the 4.0 percent annual increase for workers before the Wall Street the financial crisis of 2008.

African Americans

The African-American unemployment rate is 8.6 percent, twice the white rate of 4.3 percent.

Black workers are paid less than white workers, according to the EPI – and the gap is growing wider, not narrower. The gap is greatest among workers with the highest incomes, meaning that – at least where income is concerned – there still isn’t “room at the top” for everyone.

Wage inequality is being made worse by the “productivity gap,” where a greater and greater share of the nation’s increasing wealth is siphoned off by the wealthiest among us, leaving less and less for the majority of working people. This gap is compounding the problem for African-American workers.

“Closing the 26.2 percent racial wage gap alone would have raised hourly wages of the median black worker by $5.03 in 2015,” the EPI found, while “Closing the racial wage gap and ensuring that median wages grew with productivity would have raised hourly wages of the median black worker by $12.33 in 2015 (from $14.14 to $26.47).”

The EPI adds:

“Addressing both class and racial inequality in this way would have also raised the hourly wages of the median white worker by $7.30 (from $19.17 to $26.47)–an increase of 38.1 percent.”

Both white and black workers would benefit from a change in economic policy.

Women

The typical woman working full-time makes 80 cents for every dollar made by her male equivalent. “Women are paid less than similarly educated men at every level of education level,” another EPI report observes, adding that “the wage gap tends to rise with education level. And while the gap would be offset somewhat if women chose different occupations, the report concludes that “these ‘choices’ stem from a lifetime of decisions shaped by economic and social forces.”

The reports adds:

“Gender discrimination doesn’t happen only in the pay-setting practices of employers … It can happen at every stage of a woman’s life, from steering her away from science and technology education to shouldering her with home responsibilities that impede her capacity to work the long hours of demanding professions.”

“Women who work in male-dominated occupations are paid significantly less than similarly educated males in those occupations,” the report adds. “So even recommending that women choose better-paying occupations does not solve the problem.”

When it comes to women in the workforce, the United States is falling behind other developed countries. OECD data shows that the employment rate for women is rising is virtually all other developed countries (the sole exception is Denmark, where it dropped slightly but is already extraordinarily high).

But, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports, that figure is falling in the United States. As the CEPR observes, factors behind that drop most likely include the high cost of childcare and the lack of guaranteed parental leave. These policies, too, would benefit a broad range of working people.

The White Working Class

Polls show that working-class whites, especially those without a college education, are fearful of the future. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 53 percent of white working class voters were “very dissatisfied” with the current economic situation, and 25 percent were “somewhat dissatisfied.”

These white Americans were more dissatisfied than the country as a whole, and more dissatisfied than working-class African-American and Hispanics. They were also the subject of last year’s much-discussed study on the so-called “deaths of despair“: the rising incidence of death from suicide, alcoholism, and opioid overdose.

Why would these Americans be more pessimistic than other communities, like Latinos – especially when in many cases their economic situation remains better? Perhaps because the future looks dimmer than the past. That’s a situation that breeds despair (and calls to “make America great again.”)

The American middle class was once a roaring success- but its rewards were granted disproportionately to the white working class. The American middle class is no longer the wealthiest in the world, and most of the developed world has a larger middle class than the United States does. The middle class is disappearing all across the country, according to the latest Pew Research data, and its remaining members are earning less than they once did.

We can rebuild the middle class by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, and by addressing our trade deficit. This, too, would benefit workers in many different demographics.

The Experts

Those Trump voters may well be, as the political scientists wrote, “driven by emotional reactions and candidate attachments, rather than by pure information” – a statement that could arguably be made about most voters. And they may have proven reluctant to accept concrete numbers about the employment market. But that reluctance may also have stemmed from the fact that those numbers aren’t emotionally true for them.

As the old political aphorism says, “every voter is an expert in her own life.” White, black, male, female: Together, millions of these voters face a shared future filled with risks and challenges. They know their own realities better than many of the so-called experts do. Maybe it’s time to stop lecturing them and start learning from them. Together they can form the coalition we will need to build a more just economy.

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