For those of us who can still even stomach it, the first Friday of the month—the usual day for the release of the previous month’s federal Employment Situation Summary, known informally as the jobs report—has become a fairly pathetic ritual, particularly for optimists. We hope for some proof, any proof, that a real recovery is underway. If jobs were shed across the board, but the unemployment rate trended lightly downward, we try to pretend that it wasn’t because still more people have pulled themselves out of the formal count by giving up looking for work entirely. If private sector job growth and public sector job loss cancel each other out, we put on our market fundamentalist wishful thinking caps and talk about how private sector jobs are somehow more sustainable than their public sector equivalents. And when modest job growth does occur, even when it’s below even the basic replacement rate needed to accommodate a growing workforce, well, that’s when we bring out the champagne.
I’ve spent less time obsessing over these numbers recently, not simply because self-delusion is bad for the soul. No, I’ve mostly been eschewing this sad little mental exercise for two different reasons. First, I’m trying to remember that the Great Recession was a long time in the making, and it will take a long time to recover from. I, like all of us, desperately want to see a jobs resurgence, and now, but that type of short-term thinking was a major driver of the crash. Second, I’m trying to remember that there are more important indicators than simple job growth, and specifically that we’re better off building a broad foundation of quality, family-sustaining jobs, rather than simply piling another shaky layer of low-wage jobs onto the existing rubble.
While creating not simply any jobs but jobs that afford a middle class existence sounds like common sense, it would indeed be a break with recent history. As Slate’s highly engrossing Great Divergence series chronicles, the last three decades have seen the gutting of the American middle class. As of 2007, the wealthiest 20% of Americans were earning 14 times as much as the poorest 20% and four times the middle 20%, as compared to eight times and three times, respectively, in 1979. And, while inflation adjusted hourly wage growth from 1973-2007 was nearly 40% for the 5% of highest earners, it was less than 10% for median earners or the lowest 10% of earners. Put simply, in the last thirty-plus years, the very wealthy have done very well. Everyone else has essentially treaded water.
Changing the course of these trends will be even more difficult than jump-starting the economy in the short-term, itself a major challenge. But, if we are to truly rebuild the U.S. economy, as opposed to simply slapping a fresh coat of paint on a lemon, we have no choice.