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Working People Are Struggling in Trump’s Economy

Working People Are Struggling in Trump’s Economy

Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly jobs report – a relatively modest 134,000 jobs created in September and unemployment down to 3.7 percent. And President Trump, as has become his habit, wasted little time in tweeting boastfully about the new data.

But this has become an exercise in cherry-picking and selective memory. It’s worth taking a step back to evaluate how we got here and who did the heavy lifting. In fact, it was President Obama who inherited an economy in catastrophic freefall, whose stewardship pulled the auto industry back from the brink and ushered the nation out of the Great Recession. Job growth in the last 20 months of the Obama administration was actually better than in the first 20 months of the Trump administration.

But we need to ask a bigger question: What’s the measure of a strong economy?

Is it simply the number of jobs created or a certain level of GDP growth? These are certainly important–low unemployment is obviously better than high unemployment. But is that enough? To whom are the benefits of economic growth flowing? Are these new jobs family-sustaining?

There is plenty of evidence that this is a strong economy primarily for those already in a privileged position. As a recent Washington Post headline put it: “America is richer than ever, but most Americans aren’t.”

Recent Census data show that median earnings declined 1.1 percent last year, while income for the top 5 percent of households rose 3 percent. Workers’ share of national income is near a 70-year low. And wage growth is no longer keeping pace with worker productivity as it did in the decades immediately following World War II. The gulf between compensation for CEOs and the average worker is staggering: a 312-to-1 ratio (more than five times greater than it was in 1989). Put another way, it takes the typical working person more than 10 months to earn what top executives do in a single day.

Not all of this can be laid at the feet of the Trump administration, but the president’s economic agenda is, by design, exacerbating income inequality rather than fixing it. His signature accomplishment is a nearly $2 trillion tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy (Congressional Republicans recently passed an additional tax giveaway for the rich, this one carrying a price tag of $3 trillion over 10 years). If he had succeeded in repealing the Affordable Care Act, working families would be even worse off.

And the Trump administration has taken every opportunity to weaken one of the great economic equalizers: labor unions. The president’s appointee to the Supreme Court provided the decisive vote this year in a case (Janus v. AFSCME Council 31) that made the entire public sector so-called right-to-work, undermining the freedom of working people to band together and negotiate for decent wages, benefits and working conditions.

The bottom line: Workers contribute substantially to the nation’s wealth and economic output, but with little reward. The pie is getting bigger, but workers are getting a smaller piece.

Ten years after the financial crisis, they are still feeling the aftershocks, still struggling to get ahead of the rising cost of everything from a bag of groceries to a college education. But the wealthy continue to get wealthier–indeed, many of the very people who nearly drove the economy off a cliff a decade ago have had the softest possible landing.

A strong economy has to involve more than the nation as a whole accumulating more. It must be one where everyone can pay their bills and have a decent life, raising their families in modest comfort and dignity. The economy is still underperforming. We have more work to do.

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