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By Steven Rosenfeld
Originally published in Alternet.
The details in new numbers show worsening inequality—not the recovery politicians tout.
The latest nationwide jobs and housing statistics released this week suggest that America is no longer a country where—for most people—the future is going to be better than the past.
The percentage of people in most age and education levels in jobs compared to 2008 is down. The number of people holding multiple jobs is up. Average hourly wages have barely grown, compared to 2008. The number of people who are willing to leave their job for a new one is down. All of those trends are in the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—and there are even more depressing economic signs.
More than one-third of Americans who bought homes are trapped by that debt, according to the real estate data website Zillow.com. Some 9.7 million homes, which is 18.8 percent of U.S. homeowners, owe more than their homes are worth. In another 10 million homes, the buyer’s equity is below 20 percent, which means they can’t sell and buy another home unless they find another way to cover all the transaction costs.
Taken together, the BLS report on the working class and the Zillow report on the middle class suggest that the country, despite virtually every politican’s assertion to the contrary, does not have its best days ahead. It may be that America’s best days—when the promise of hard work and playing by the rules led to economic security—is a thing of the past.
“There’s a recovery for some people, you know, and other people, not so much,” James Carville, the Democratic consultant told The New York Times, soft-pedaling the implication of numbers. Jared Bernstein, a progressive economist who once joined Vice-President Joe Biden’s staff and has since left the White House, said these economic figures show the “inequality problem” is not an abstraction.
Let’s go through them one-by-one, starting with what’s called the “employment to population ratio.” The BLS slices up working people by category: people with a college degree or higher, men age 20 and over, Hispanics, whites, women age 20 and over, people without college degrees, blacks, high school dropouts, and teenagers. Compared with the start of the Recession in December 2007, there are fewer people now working in every single one of those categories. TheTimes explained what has happened with women:
“Consider women, whose unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent, up almost 2 percentage points from when Mr. Obama took office… Today it is at 5.7 percent, a seemingly shining number for Democrats…
“But while the number of women out of work appears to be much improved, the number of women employed compared with the total female population 55.2 percent, actually worse than it was in October 2010. Progress, in fact, is a mirage, the product of what ecomomists call the disappearing work force: people giving up and dropping out.”
There are other discouraging statistics reflecting the true state of the working and middle-class America in the BLS report. Nearly 6.7 million people said they had multiple jobs in 2010; now that figure is over 7 million. In October 2010, more than 2.57 million people said they could only find part-time work. This April, that figure was 2.62 million. BLS also reported that workers are not as afraid of being fired, as they were during the recession, but are more risk-averse to leaving a job voluntarily to try something else.
Wage stagnation frames this same story another way. When Obama took office in 2009, the average hourly wage was $18.46 an hour. This April, it was $24.31—but, after adjusting that figure for inflation, it’s equal to $20.40 in 2009’s dollars. Compare that to pre-tax income for the top 1 percent, which grew 31 percent in that same time period—from 2009 to this past April.
And there other signs of deepening inequality. Since the recession ended, the gross domestic product has grow 11 percent. Standard & Poor’s 500, a leading stock index, is up 83 percent. Corporate profits are up 53 percent. Yet median household income is down 4 percent.
Numbers can be numbing, but these statistics trace large and troubling trends. For most Americans, the future does not look as good as the past—even if the past was not quite as good as people might recall with nostalgia. That’s quite a paradigm shift, because it puts the country’s mood directly at odds with politicans who are running in 2014 and saying that things are slowly getting better.
They’re not—and other stories on the financial pages say why. The greed of Wall St. investors never stops. Today’s Wall St. Journal has a front-page story on how big investment firms again are buying the “riskiest” corporate junk bonds, which promise to pay interest rates that are on par with what was sold to homeowners as subprime loans at the peak of the housing market bubble.
That trend can only end badly for the non-investing public. Either those corporations selling those bonds will raise prices to pay off investors when they come due, or they will end up going out of business and laying off the people working for those companies.
Whichever way you look at it, the bottom line is that for most Americans, the economic future is not bright.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).