Something’s happening to wages that neither Democrats nor Republicans care to acknowledge.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: For most American workers, real wages have barely budged in decades. Inequality has skyrocketed. The richest workers are making all the money. Earnings for low-income workers have been pathetic this entire century.
These claims help drive the interpretation of breaking economic news. For example, the Labor Department yesterday reported that the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low, while wage growth stalled. “The wage numbers here are INSANE,” the MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted. “The tightest labor market in decades and decades and ordinary working people are barely seeing gains.”
So, let’s play a game of wish-casting.
- Imagine a world where wage growth was truly stagnant only for workers in high-wage industries, such as medicine and consulting.
- Imagine a labor market where earnings growth for low-wage workers, such as those who work in retail and restaurants, had doubled in the past five years.
- Imagine an economy where wages for the poorest Americans were rising twice as fast as hourly earnings for high-wage earners.
It turns out that all three of those things are happening right now.
According to analysis by Nick Bunker, an economist with the jobs site Indeed, wage growth is currently strongest for workers in low-wage industries, such as clothing stores, supermarkets, amusement parks, and casinos. And earnings are growing most slowly in higher-wage industries, such as medical labs, law firms, and broadcasting and telecom companies.
Bunker’s analysis is not an outlier. A Goldman Sachs look at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found growth for the bottom half of earners at its highest rate of the cycle. And even among that bottom half, the biggest gains are going to workers earning the least. A New York Times analysis of data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that wage growth among the lowest 25 percent of earners had exceeded the growth in every other quartile.
In fact, according to Bunker’s research, wages for low-income workers may be growing at their highest rate in 20 years.
What’s happening here? Donald Trump hasn’t sprinkled MAGA pixie dust over the U.S. economy. In fact, his trade war has clearly diminished employment growth in industries, that are sensitive to foreign markets, such as manufacturing. Rather, a tight labor market and state-by-state minimum wage hikes have combined to push up wage growth for the poorest workers. The sluggishness of overall wage growth is concealing the fact that the labor market has done wonderful things for wages at the low end.
One reason you haven’t heard this economic narrative may be that it’s inconvenient for members of both political parties to talk about, especially at a time when economic analysis has, like everything else, become a proxy for political orientation. For Democrats, the idea that low-income workers could be benefiting from a 2019 economy feels dangerously close to giving the president credit for something. This isn’t just poor motivated reasoning; it also attributes way too much power to the American president, who exerts very little control over the domestic economy. Meanwhile, corporate-friendly outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, have reported on this phenomenon. But they’ve used it as an opportunity to take a shot at “the slow-growth Obama years” rather than a way to argue for the extraordinary benefits of tight labor markets for the poor, much less for the virtues of minimum-wage laws.
Democrats don’t want to talk about low-income wage growth, because it feels too close to saying, “Good things can happen while Trump is president”; and Republicans don’t want to talk about the reason behind it, because it’s dangerously close to saying, “Our singular fixation with corporate-tax rates is foolish and Keynes was right.”
But good things can happen while Trump is president, and Keynes was right. “Tighter labor markets sure are good for workers who work in low-wage industries,” Bunker told me. “This recovery has not been spectacular. But if we let the labor market get stronger for a long time, you will see these results.”
Black workers have received far smaller pay increases in recent years compared with other racial groups, despite unemployment for black Americans trending at historic lows.
For all U.S. workers, inflation-adjusted median weekly earnings rose 5.3% in the first quarter of 2019 compared with when the recession began in late 2007, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Labor Department data released Tuesday.
.. The disparity suggests black workers aren’t benefiting to the same degree as others from what is by several measures the best labor market in nearly half a century.
Black unemployment last year fell to the lowest level on records dating back to the 1970s. But the rate, an average of 6.8% in the first quarter, was well above the overall rate of 3.9%.
“In a hotter economy, it’s important to be looking at the structural issues that may be inhibiting black workers from seeing better gains.” said Valerie Wilson, an economist and director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy.
One of those is racial discrimination, she said. Other factors are lack of jobs near where black workers live and a reluctance of employers to hire those with criminal backgrounds. More prisoners are black than white, according to the Justice Department, despite black people accounting for about 13% of the U.S. population. And reports have shown black men receive longer sentences than white men for similar crimes.
Coca-Cola slashed its median pay figure by two-thirds after it finished shifting North American bottling operations to franchisees and acquired a controlling interest in African operations. The 2017 median worker was an hourly full-timer in the U.S. making $47,312, while last year’s made $16,440 as an hourly full-timer in South Africa.
In its proxy statement, Coca-Cola said it intends to shed the African operation again after making improvements and offered an alternative median employee excluding that unit: an hourly full-timer in the U.S. making $35,878, about 25% less than his or her 2017 counterpart. A company spokesman declined to comment further.
So technological change is an old story. What’s new is the failure of workers to share in the fruits of that technological change.
I’m not saying that coping with change was ever easy. The decline of coal employment had devastating effects on many families, and much of what used to be coal country has never recovered. The loss of manual jobs in port cities surely contributed to the urban social crisisof the ’70s and ’80s.
But while there have always been some victims of technological progress, until the 1970s rising productivity translated into rising wages for a great majority of workers. Then the connection was broken. And it wasn’t the robots that did it.
What did? There is a growing though incomplete consensus among economists that a key factor in wage stagnation has been workers’ declining bargaining power — a decline whose roots are ultimately political.
Most obviously, the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by a third over the past half century, even as worker productivity has risen 150 percent. That divergence was politics, pure and simple.
The decline of unions, which covered a quarter of private-sector workers in 1973 but only 6 percent now, may not be as obviously political. But other countries haven’t seen the same kind of decline. Canada is as unionized now as the U.S. was in 1973; in the Nordic nations unions cover two-thirds of the work force. What made America exceptional was a political environment deeply hostile to labor organizing and friendly toward union-busting employers.