Why aren’t we hearing more about the worst job and wage situation since the Great Depression?
The latest employment figures (released this morning) show job losses continuing to grow. According to the payroll survey, job losses are increasing more slowly than in previous months. According to the household survey, they’re accelerating — from 9.4 percent of the workforce in July to 9.7 percent in August. Bottom line: almost one out of six Americans who need a full-time job either can’t find one or is working part-time. Meanwhile, wage growth among people who have jobs has just about stopped. The Economic Policy Institute reports that between 2006 and 2008, wages grew at an annualized rate of 4.0%; by contrast, over the past three months annual wage growth has plummeted to just 0.7%. At the same time, furloughs — requiring workers to take unpaid vacations — are on the rise: recent surveys show 17% of companies imposing them. More than 20% of companies have suspended their contributions to 401(k)s and similar pension plans.
So why isn’t the media screaming? Partly because these job and wage losses are not, for the most part, falling on the segment of our population most visible to the media. They’re falling overwhelmingly on the middle class and the poor. Unemployment among those who have been in the top 10 percent of earnings is closer to 5 percent, and their earnings continue to climb — although, to be sure, much more slowly than before the meltdown. It’s much the same with health-care and pension benefits. Among people under 65 who are in the bottom 20% of incomes, only 21.9% have employer-sponsored health insurance — if they have a job at all. Half of all people nearing retirement age have a 401(k) balance of less than $40,000.
I keep hearing that the economic meltdown has taken a huge toll on the stock portfolios of the rich. That’s true. But the rich haven’t lost nearly as much of their assets, proportionately, as everyone else. According to a report from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch (“The Myth of the Overleveraged Consumer”), analyzing data from the Federal Reserve, the bottom 90 percent of Americans hold 50 percent of more of their assets in residential real estate, which has taken a far bigger beating than stocks and bonds. The top 10 percent of Americans have only a quarter of their assets in housing; most of their assets are in stocks and bonds. And although the stock market is still a bit tipsy, it has rallied considerably since it hit bottom earlier this year. Home values, on the other hand, are down by an average of a third across the country, and are still falling.
What does all this mean for the economy as a whole? It raises the fundamental question of where demand will come from to get us out of this hole. If so manyAmericans are losing their jobs and wages, you have to wonder who will be returning to the malls.
That same Bank of America Merrill Lynch (NYSE:BAC) report notes cheerfully that 42 percent of consumer spending before the meltdown came from the top-earning 10 percent of Americans (not too surprising given that the top 10 percent was raking in half of total earnings) and the top 10 percent continues to do relatively well. So, says Bank of America Merrill, we can rely on the spending of the top 10 percent to get the economy moving again. Indeed, they conclude, Congress and the White House should be careful not to raise taxes on the top 10 percent, lest the consuming ardor of these most privileged members of our society be dampened.
This logic is morally and economically indefensible. If we’ve learned anything from the Great Recession-Mini Depression of the last 18 months, it’s that the skewing of income and wealth to the top has made our economy far less stable. When the majority of middle-class and poor Americans are either losing their jobs or feel threatened by job loss, and when those who still have jobs are experiencing flat or declining wages, there’s simply no way to get the economy back on track. The track we were on — featuring stagnant median wages, widening inequality, and job insecurity — got us into this mess in the first place.