The big national news this morning was the U.S. Labor Department’s November jobs report showing an unemployment rate of 4.6 percent, the lowest in nine years. An interest rate increase from the Fed is expected sometime this month.
The economy added 178,000 jobs last month. October’s gains were 142,000. That’s good, although part of the decline in unemployment was caused by people dropping out of the labor force — around 226,000 workers. Some of those are retirees, but not all, as Neil Irwin at the NYT’s Upshot elaborates:
Millions of working-age people, especially men, are neither working nor looking for work, which remains the lingering weak spot in the United States economy and is most likely a factor in Americans’ continued dissatisfaction with the economy (and their votes for Donald J. Trump for president).
Moreover, some progress toward higher wages reported in the October jobs numbers was partly reversed, with an 0.1 percent fall in average hourly earnings for private-sector workers. Still, the 2.5 percent gain in that wage measure over the last year represents real income gains in a time of low inflation. And the silver lining of softer wage growth is that it will make the Fed more inclined to be patient in raising rates by diminishing the central bank’s inflation fears.
Some Democrats will take the solid November jobs numbers as more bittersweet vindication that the presidency of Barack Obama has been an unmitigated economic success. Obama inherited a recession and a financial crisis, and he’s about to leave office with a stable economy, pre-housing-crisis levels of employment and (despite investors’ moaning about Dodd-Frank) thriving financial markets. This is all true, and it stands in almost absurd contrast to the visions of the Obama-fueled economic collapse that conservatives have been fantasizing about for years.
But it would be a huge mistake if liberals use these macro-level facts to avoid reckoning with the reality of their concomitant failure to address economic stagnation and decline for large sections of the American population.
For one thing, urban counties have seen a much stronger recovery from the recession than rural ones and have enjoyed much stronger job growth. For another, unemployment levels vary greatly depending on educational attainment — and contra the simplistic “economic anxieties of the white working class” narrative, there’s also a huge employment gap in terms of race:
— Nick Timiraos (@NickTimiraos) December 2, 2016
Not only did the unemployment rate fall for the "wrong" reasons, it continues to mask just how bad the economy is for workers of color. pic.twitter.com/rvsGJxIty3
— Elise Gould (@eliselgould) December 2, 2016
Also, unemployment figures don’t tell you about the kinds of jobs being created. Even average hourly earnings numbers can mask rising wage inequality. (Stagnant pay for some workers + raises for others = rising median wages.)* Take as an anecdotal example this New York Times story about the Carrier plants in Indiana that have recently been used as by Donald Trump as a prop in his “dealmaking” narrative:
For workers like Mr. Roell, 36, who started at Carrier just weeks after receiving his high school diploma and never returned to school, the problem is not a shortage of jobs in the area. Instead, it is a drought of jobs that pay anywhere near the $23.83 an hour he makes at Carrier, let alone enough to give him a toehold in the middle class.
When he drives to work each day before dawn, Mr. Roell passes warehouse after warehouse of giants like Walmart and Kohl’s with “Help Wanted” signs outside promising jobs within. The problem is that they typically pay $13 to $15 an hour.
The past eight years have been good ones for the economy writ large. But the brutal truth is that the Obama administration hasn’t reversed the long-term trends towards greater and greater income and wealth inequality.
Think Donald Trump and Steve Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross are just the guys to level the playing field?
*Correction, 12/6/16: This parenthetical originally said “Stagnant pay for most workers + big raises for a few = rising median wages.” That is incorrect, as a reader noted, or at best misleading. It implies the median of a data set is changed by the size of the spread between two numbers. In fact, the median is used as a measure of the “typical” salary — rather than the mean — in part because it’s a measure that’s resistant to changes at the top and bottom of the distribution. If the bottom 75 percent of workers sees no wage growth and the top 25 percent sees their wages double, the median of that set will remain the same, although the mean will shift upwards.
Nonetheless, the median wage as a metric can still mask inequalities, including geographic ones. When the U.S. announced significant yearly growth in median household income earlier this year, the Census Bureau found that the gains went mostly to workers in urban areas and missed rural ones.