20 States Raise Their Minimum Wages While the Federal Minimum Continues to Erode

On January 1st, 20 states and the District of Columbia will raise their minimum wages, lifting the pay of over 4.4 million workers throughout the country.1 In nine of these states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington) the increases are routine—the minimum wage in those states is “indexed” for inflation so that each year the minimum is automatically increased to account for rising prices. The increases in the other 11 states, plus DC, are the result of changes to minimum wage laws—either legislation passed by state lawmakers or referenda passed directly by voters at the ballot box. Later in the year, another half-a-million workers in Delaware and Minnesota will also get a raise as legislated increases take effect there.

As the table below shows, the increases range from a 12-cent inflation adjustment in Florida—raising the minimum to $8.05—up to a $1.25 increase in South Dakota that will lift the state floor to $8.50. The smaller inflation-linked increases will lift pay for the roughly 5 to 7 percent of workers with wages at or very close to the minimum. The states instituting larger increases, however, will see a more sizeable portion of the state workforce getting a raise—such as in Minnesota, where the $1.00 increase later in the year is expected to lift pay for nearly a fifth of wage earners in the state.

All told, these increases will provide workers with $2.5 billion in additional wages over the course of the year. This added pay represents a modest, but significant, boost to the spending power of the affected workers, many of whom have children and families to support.

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Even with Recent Low Inflation, Real Wages Continue to Stagnate

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the Consumer Price Index for November 2014 today, which lets us look at trends in real (inflation-adjusted) wages. The figure below shows real average hourly earnings of all private employees (top line) and production/nonsupervisory workers (bottom line) since the recession began in December 2007. For both series, you can see that real wages fell during the recession, then jumped up in late 2008, in direct response to a drop in inflation. When inflation falls and nominal wages hold steady, the mathematical result is a rise in inflation-adjusted wages. After the deflation leading up to 2009 stopped boosting real wages, wage growth has been flat.

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Real average hourly earnings, December 2007– November 2014

All private employees Production/Nonsupervisory
Dec-2007 $23.84 $19.90
Jan-2008 $23.79 $19.88
Feb-2008 $23.81 $19.89
Mar-2008 $23.83 $19.90
Apr-2008 $23.79 $19.90
May-2008 $23.76 $19.86
Jun-2008 $23.56 $19.72
Jul-2008 $23.47 $19.65
Aug-2008 $23.62 $19.76
Sep-2008 $23.63 $19.77
Oct-2008 $23.89 $20.01
Nov-2008 $24.44 $20.43
Dec-2008 $24.71 $20.67
Jan-2009 $24.65 $20.64
Feb-2009 $24.62 $20.60
Mar-2009 $24.69 $20.69
Apr-2009 $24.71 $20.69
May-2009 $24.69 $20.68
Jun-2009 $24.51 $20.55
Jul-2009 $24.56 $20.59
Aug-2009 $24.56 $20.59
Sep-2009 $24.51 $20.60
Oct-2009 $24.50 $20.58
Nov-2009 $24.48 $20.58
Dec-2009 $24.47 $20.60
Jan-2010 $24.50 $20.64
Feb-2010 $24.55 $20.68
Mar-2010 $24.57 $20.68
Apr-2010 $24.61 $20.74
May-2010 $24.66 $20.80
Jun-2010 $24.65 $20.81
Jul-2010 $24.68 $20.81
Aug-2010 $24.68 $20.83
Sep-2010 $24.69 $20.82
Oct-2010 $24.68 $20.86
Nov-2010 $24.63 $20.81
Dec-2010 $24.54 $20.72
Jan-2011 $24.58 $20.76
Feb-2011 $24.48 $20.68
Mar-2011 $24.37 $20.58
Apr-2011 $24.34 $20.55
May-2011 $24.32 $20.53
Jun-2011 $24.31 $20.50
Jul-2011 $24.34 $20.53
Aug-2011 $24.25 $20.48
Sep-2011 $24.23 $20.45
Oct-2011 $24.34 $20.49
Nov-2011 $24.29 $20.49
Dec-2011 $24.30 $20.48
Jan-2012 $24.27 $20.44
Feb-2012 $24.26 $20.41
Mar-2012 $24.26 $20.40
Apr-2012 $24.29 $20.45
May-2012 $24.33 $20.47
Jun-2012 $24.37 $20.47
Jul-2012 $24.43 $20.52
Aug-2012 $24.29 $20.41
Sep-2012 $24.24 $20.33
Oct-2012 $24.17 $20.32
Nov-2012 $24.31 $20.42
Dec-2012 $24.38 $20.45
Jan-2013 $24.40 $20.50
Feb-2013 $24.31 $20.43
Mar-2013 $24.38 $20.50
Apr-2013 $24.47 $20.55
May-2013 $24.46 $20.54
Jun-2013 $24.47 $20.53
Jul-2013 $24.42 $20.53
Aug-2013 $24.46 $20.53
Sep-2013 $24.46 $20.55
Oct-2013 $24.49 $20.58
Nov-2013 $24.52 $20.61
Dec-2013 $24.48 $20.61
Jan-2014 $24.50 $20.63
Feb-2014 $24.55 $20.71
Mar-2014 $24.53 $20.65
Apr-2014 $24.47 $20.62
May-2014 $24.44 $20.59
Jun-2014 $24.44 $20.58
Jul-2014 $24.43 $20.59
Aug-2014 $24.56 $20.69
Sep-2014 $24.54 $20.66
Oct-2014 $24.57 $20.70
Nov-2014 $24.66 $20.74

Note: Earnings are adjusted to November 2014 dollars.

Source: Author analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics's Current Employment Statistics and Consumer Price Index, public data series.

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In the past month, we have also started to see falling prices, particularly with respect to gas prices. If nominal wage growth holds in the coming months, it may mean a rise in real wages. But so far, the data indicates that over the last year, real wage growth has continued to be stagnant. Average hourly earnings of private sector workers were $24.66 in November, and real hourly earnings averaged $24.51 over the last year. These wages are no better than we saw in the year ending November 2009 or November 2010, where average hourly earnings were $24.60 and $24.61, respectively. As shown in the figure below, real wage growth has been about zero on average for the last five years, and there is no sign of acceleration.

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Year-over-year change in real average hourly earnings of all private nonfarm employees and private production/ nonsupervisory employees, November 2009– November 2014

All Private Employees Production/Nonsupervisory
Nov-2009 0.15% 0.76%
Dec-2009 -0.98% -0.31%
Jan-2010 -0.62% 0.01%
Feb-2010 -0.32% 0.35%
Mar-2010 -0.50% -0.01%
Apr-2010 -0.40% 0.25%
May-2010 -0.10% 0.57%
Jun-2010 0.55% 1.26%
Jul-2010 0.46% 1.08%
Aug-2010 0.49% 1.18%
Sep-2010 0.73% 1.08%
Oct-2010 0.72% 1.34%
Nov-2010 0.60% 1.12%
Dec-2010 0.29% 0.56%
Jan-2011 0.30% 0.56%
Feb-2011 -0.26% 0.02%
Mar-2011 -0.80% -0.52%
Apr-2011 -1.13% -0.94%
May-2011 -1.36% -1.30%
Jun-2011 -1.39% -1.46%
Jul-2011 -1.35% -1.35%
Aug-2011 -1.74% -1.70%
Sep-2011 -1.85% -1.80%
Oct-2011 -1.36% -1.75%
Nov-2011 -1.38% -1.58%
Dec-2011 -1.01% -1.16%
Jan-2012 -1.23% -1.53%
Feb-2012 -0.90% -1.31%
Mar-2012 -0.47% -0.89%
Apr-2012 -0.19% -0.48%
May-2012 0.03% -0.30%
Jun-2012 0.24% -0.16%
Jul-2012 0.35% -0.03%
Aug-2012 0.17% -0.35%
Sep-2012 0.03% -0.57%
Oct-2012 -0.68% -0.86%
Nov-2012 0.11% -0.35%
Dec-2012 0.33% -0.13%
Jan-2013 0.51% 0.26%
Feb-2013 0.18% 0.12%
Mar-2013 0.51% 0.51%
Apr-2013 0.75% 0.51%
May-2013 0.52% 0.35%
Jun-2013 0.44% 0.30%
Jul-2013 -0.04% 0.02%
Aug-2013 0.71% 0.62%
Sep-2013 0.92% 1.06%
Oct-2013 1.30% 1.32%
Nov-2013 0.86% 0.97%
Dec-2013 0.44% 0.81%
Jan-2014 0.41% 0.63%
Feb-2014 0.99% 1.33%
Mar-2014 0.60% 0.75%
Apr-2014 0.01% 0.33%
May-2014 -0.08% 0.25%
Jun-2014 -0.11% 0.21%
Jul-2014 0.05% 0.28%
Aug-2014 0.40% 0.75%
Sep-2014 0.33% 0.55%
Oct-2014 0.34% 0.56%
Nov-2014 0.82% 0.87%

Note: Earnings are adjusted to November 2014 dollars. Light shaded area denotes recession.

Source: Author analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics's Current Employment Statistics and Consumer Price Index, public data series.

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The Fed’s Language May Change This Week—Let’s Hope It Doesn’t Signal Interest Rates Going up Sooner

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Word on the street is that they will shift the language they use to describe the likely future path of short-term interest rates. Recently this language has stressed that very low short-term rates are likely to persist for “a considerable time.” The new language may instead stress the need for Fed “patience” with lower rates.

To real-life human beings, of course, parsing such language is an exercise that goes so far beyond splitting hairs it’s absurd.

But it matters. The Fed is the most important economic policymaking institution in the United States right now. They have, by far, the most influence on whether American workers’ hourly wages and living standards will begin rising or not in coming years. If they raise interest rates before genuine recovery from the Great Recession is secured, the hopes for real (inflation-adjusted) wage increases for the vast majority of Americans will be torpedoed. And, this switch from “considerable time” to “patience” will be interpreted as inflation hawks on the Fed who want to see an earlier interest rate increase gaining a small patch of intellectual territory.

Does surrendering this small patch of rhetorical territory actually mean that rates will begin rising faster than they would have otherwise? I have no idea.

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New Trade Agreements will Take Center Stage in 2015. So Will Bad Arguments Made on their Behalf.

Next year, we are going to see lots of debate over trade policy. And, like clockwork, when trade policy rises to the top of policy debate, lots of bad arguments start getting thrown around on behalf of more trade agreements. Ed Gresser submits the latest round of bad ones in a paper released last week.

Gresser goes wrong out of the gate by implying very strongly that inequality is irrelevant to the living standards of low and moderate-income households. In his own words he argues:

“But “growing apart” [editor’s note: this means the rise in inequality] appears to be a phenomenon in which wealthy people rise fastest, not one in which they rise while the middle class and poor lose ground. Americans have actually grown more affluent at all income levels.”

This implicit claim is deeply wrong—the rise of inequality over the past generation has in fact been the primary drag on living standards growth for low- and moderate-income families. Gresser arrives at his irrelevance conclusion by essentially noting that cumulative income growth for low- and moderate-income households has exceeded zero over multiple decades. Well, congratulations to us, I guess. But very few countries outside of maybe North Korea have ever posted negative income growth over decades for the majority of their population.

It’s especially ironic to get this interpretation of rising inequality wrong when discussing its with expanded trade. The standard trade theory that links falling trade costs and rising inequality in rich countries like the United States is clear that this rise in inequality is accompanied by absolute (not just relative) income declines felt by the losing group. In the United States, the losing group is generally proxied by either production and nonsupervisory labor, or workers without a college degree—in either case the majority of the workforce. And while these trade-induced losses (which I estimated to be roughly $1,800 annually for a full-time worker without a college degree) do not explain all, or even the majority, of the rise in inequality over the past generation, they’re not trivial. Gresser claims to have cast doubt on these results (which are based on off-the-shelf standard trade models), but as I’ll show below, his analysis of them is completely irrelevant.

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Recovery Is Nowhere Near Accomplished, and the Fed Shouldn’t Tighten Policy Until It Is

What follows are lightly edited remarks made by EPI Research and Policy Director Josh Bivens at a Dec. 9 event—Managing the Economy: The Federal Reserve, Wall Street, and Main Street—sponsored by EPI, Americans for Financial Reform, and the Roosevelt Institute Project on Financialization. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Paul Krugman were the event’s featured speakers.

The event examined key policy questions facing the Federal Reserve in coming years. Bivens’s remarks focused on the need for monetary policy to allow a genuine recovery to happen, and argued that fears over coming inflation should not persuade the Fed to hike short-term interest rates before a full recovery is achieved.

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I’ll begin by trying to frame why we think the topics being addressed by today’s panels and speakers are so important.

They’re important first because the economy remains far from fully recovered from the Great Recession. In fact, even after last month’s excellent jobs report, we’re still only about halfway recovered in terms of employment conditions, evidenced in the figure below simply by the share of adults between the ages of 25 and 54 with a job. If I had to pick one desert-island measure of labor market slack, this one seems pretty good to me.

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Congress Again Rewards Tax Dodgers with a Tax Cut

Congress has agreed to reduce the Internal Revenue Service’s fiscal year 2015 budget by about 3 percent (from almost $11.3 billion in fy2014 to $10.9 billion), with over half coming from the enforcement budget. The reduction is even larger after adjusting for inflation (almost 5 percent). This is just the latest IRS budget reduction; in inflation-adjusted terms the IRS budget has been cut by almost 18 percent since 2010.

Interestingly, earlier this week the IRS Oversight Board released the results from a survey of public attitudes on the IRS. Overall, the public appears to be satisfied with their personal interactions with the IRS—74 percent are either very or somewhat satisfied. Only 61 percent of respondents (still a majority) trust the IRS to fairly enforce the tax laws, and this number could plausibly be depressed as a result of the House GOP hearings on the possible IRS mishandling of some tax-exemption applications from conservative groups.

Two other results from the survey are notable (to me at least). First, 86 percent of respondents think it is unacceptable to cheat on their income taxes. Second, 56 percent agree that the IRS should receive extra funding to enforce the tax laws. Most Americans think it is wrong to cheat on taxes and are willing to pay a little more to catch the tax cheats, which brings me back to the IRS budget.

Most of the IRS budget is devoted to helping taxpayers with tax forms, catching honest mistakes by taxpayers, and catching tax cheats. Over the past few years, IRS’s enforcement actions have brought in about an additional $50 billion per year (this is above the $1.6 trillion collected in income taxes); this figure works out to about $10.60 in additional collections per enforcement budget dollar spent for the IRS (the average over several years).

If a $1 budget reduction yields a $10.60 reduction in enforcement collections, then the $191 million reduction in the IRS enforcement budget could prove to be a $2 billion tax cut for tax cheats. There appears to be a disconnect between what Congress enacts and what the American public wants.

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Still No Skills Mismatch in the Economy: The Number of Unemployed Exceeds the Number of Available Jobs Across All Sectors

The figure below shows the number of unemployed workers and the number of job openings in October, by industry. This figure is useful for diagnosing what’s behind our sustained high unemployment. If today’s labor market woes were the result of skills shortages or mismatches, we would expect to see some sectors where there are more unemployed workers than job openings, and others where there are more job openings than unemployed workers. What we find, however, is that unemployed workers exceed jobs openings across the board.

Some sectors have been closing the gap faster than others. Health care and social assistance, which has been consistently adding jobs throughout the business cycle, has a ratio quickly approaching 1-to-1. On the other end of the spectrum, there are 6.2 unemployed construction workers for every job opening. Removing those two extremes, there are between 1.1 and 3.1 as many unemployed workers as job openings in every other industry. This demonstrates that the main problem in the labor market is a broad-based lack of demand for workers—not, as is often claimed, available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.

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Unemployed and job openings, by industry (in millions)

Industry Unemployed Job openings
Professional and business services 1.1213 0.8374
Health care and social assistance 0.7088 0.6926
Retail trade 1.1393 0.4738
Accommodation and food services 0.9668 0.5724
Government 0.6862 0.4281
Finance and insurance 0.2670 0.2235
Durable goods manufacturing 0.4880 0.1769
Other services 0.3863 0.1449
Wholesale trade 0.1660 0.1503
Transportation, warehousing, and utilities 0.3743 0.1638
Information 0.1521 0.1005
Construction 0.7917 0.1273
Nondurable goods manufacturing 0.3168 0.1076
Educational services 0.2259 0.0779
Real estate and rental and leasing 0.1182 0.0540
Arts, entertainment, and recreation 0.2227 0.0726
Mining and logging 0.0546 0.0285

 

Note: Because the data are not seasonally adjusted, these are 12-month averages, September 2013–August 2014.

Source: EPI analysis of data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and the Current Population Survey

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Little Change in the Job Openings Data for October 2014

After a larger than usual uptick in September, the quits rate fell slightly in October, while the hires and layoffs rates continued to hold steady, according the October Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS)

The figure below shows the hires rate, the quits rate, and the layoffs rate. Layoffs, which shot up during the recession, recovered quickly once the recession officially ended—they’ve been at prerecession levels for more than three years. This makes sense. The economy is in a recovery and businesses are no longer shedding workers at an elevated rate. The fact that this trend continued in October is a good sign.

But not only do layoffs need to come down before we see a full recovery in the labor market, hiring needs to pick up. While the hires rate has been generally improving, it’s still well below its prerecession level.

Meanwhile, the voluntary quits rate, which has been flat since February (1.8 percent), saw a modest spike up in September to 2.0 percent, then fell to 1.9 percent in October. The overall trend in the recovery has been positive. A larger number of people voluntarily quitting their job indicates a labor market in which hiring is prevalent and workers are able to leave jobs that are not right for them, and find new ones. While there was a drop in October, these series are somewhat volatile and one should not rely too much on a one-month trend.

There are still 5.6 percent fewer voluntary quits each month than there were in 2007, before the recession began. A return to pre-recession levels of in voluntary quits would indicate that fewer workers are locked into jobs they would leave if they could.

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Hires, quits, and layoff rates, December 2000–October 2014

Month Hires rate Layoffs rate Quits rate
Dec-2000 4.1% 1.4% 2.3%
Jan-2001 4.4% 1.6% 2.6%
Feb-2001 4.1% 1.4% 2.5%
Mar-2001 4.2% 1.6% 2.4%
Apr-2001 4.0% 1.5% 2.4%
May-2001 4.0% 1.5% 2.4%
Jun-2001 3.8% 1.5% 2.3%
Jul-2001 3.9% 1.5% 2.2%
Aug-2001 3.8% 1.4% 2.1%
Sep-2001 3.8% 1.6% 2.1%
Oct-2001 3.8% 1.7% 2.2%
Nov-2001 3.7% 1.6% 2.0%
Dec-2001 3.7% 1.4% 2.0%
Jan-2002 3.7% 1.4% 2.2%
Feb-2002 3.7% 1.5% 2.0%
Mar-2002 3.5% 1.4% 1.9%
Apr-2002 3.8% 1.5% 2.1%
May-2002 3.8% 1.5% 2.1%
Jun-2002 3.7% 1.4% 2.0%
Jul-2002 3.8% 1.5% 2.1%
Aug-2002 3.7% 1.4% 2.0%
Sep-2002 3.7% 1.4% 2.0%
Oct-2002 3.7% 1.4% 2.0%
Nov-2002 3.8% 1.5% 1.9%
Dec-2002 3.8% 1.5% 2.0%
Jan-2003 3.8% 1.5% 1.9%
Feb-2003 3.6% 1.5% 1.9%
Mar-2003 3.4% 1.4% 1.9%
Apr-2003 3.6% 1.6% 1.8%
May-2003 3.5% 1.5% 1.8%
Jun-2003 3.7% 1.6% 1.8%
Jul-2003 3.6% 1.6% 1.8%
Aug-2003 3.6% 1.5% 1.8%
Sep-2003 3.7% 1.5% 1.9%
Oct-2003 3.8% 1.4% 1.9%
Nov-2003 3.6% 1.4% 1.9%
Dec-2003 3.8% 1.5% 1.9%
Jan-2004 3.7% 1.5% 1.9%
Feb-2004 3.6% 1.4% 1.9%
Mar-2004 3.9% 1.4% 2.0%
Apr-2004 3.9% 1.5% 2.0%
May-2004 3.8% 1.4% 1.9%
Jun-2004 3.8% 1.4% 2.0%
Jul-2004 3.7% 1.4% 2.0%
Aug-2004 3.9% 1.5% 2.0%
Sep-2004 3.8% 1.4% 2.0%
Oct-2004 3.9% 1.4% 2.0%
Nov-2004 3.9% 1.5% 2.1%
Dec-2004 4.0% 1.5% 2.1%
Jan-2005 3.9% 1.4% 2.1%
Feb-2005 3.9% 1.4% 2.0%
Mar-2005 3.9% 1.5% 2.1%
Apr-2005 4.0% 1.4% 2.1%
May-2005 3.9% 1.4% 2.1%
Jun-2005 3.9% 1.5% 2.1%
Jul-2005 3.9% 1.4% 2.0%
Aug-2005 4.0% 1.4% 2.2%
Sep-2005 4.0% 1.4% 2.3%
Oct-2005 3.8% 1.3% 2.2%
Nov-2005 3.9% 1.2% 2.2%
Dec-2005 3.7% 1.3% 2.1%
Jan-2006 3.9% 1.3% 2.1%
Feb-2006 3.9% 1.3% 2.2%
Mar-2006 3.9% 1.2% 2.2%
Apr-2006 3.8% 1.3% 2.1%
May-2006 4.0% 1.4% 2.2%
Jun-2006 3.9% 1.2% 2.2%
Jul-2006 3.9% 1.3% 2.2%
Aug-2006 3.8% 1.2% 2.2%
Sep-2006 3.8% 1.3% 2.1%
Oct-2006 3.8% 1.3% 2.1%
Nov-2006 4.0% 1.3% 2.3%
Dec-2006 3.8% 1.3% 2.2%
Jan-2007 3.8% 1.2% 2.2%
Feb-2007 3.8% 1.3% 2.2%
Mar-2007 3.8% 1.3% 2.2%
Apr-2007 3.7% 1.3% 2.1%
May-2007 3.8% 1.3% 2.2%
Jun-2007 3.8% 1.3% 2.0%
Jul-2007 3.7% 1.3% 2.1%
Aug-2007 3.7% 1.3% 2.1%
Sep-2007 3.7% 1.5% 1.9%
Oct-2007 3.8% 1.4% 2.1%
Nov-2007 3.7% 1.4% 2.0%
Dec-2007 3.6% 1.3% 2.0%
Jan-2008 3.5% 1.3% 2.0%
Feb-2008 3.5% 1.4% 2.0%
Mar-2008 3.4% 1.3% 1.9%
Apr-2008 3.5% 1.3% 2.1%
May-2008 3.3% 1.3% 1.9%
Jun-2008 3.5% 1.5% 1.9%
Jul-2008 3.3% 1.4% 1.8%
Aug-2008 3.3% 1.6% 1.7%
Sep-2008 3.1% 1.4% 1.8%
Oct-2008 3.3% 1.6% 1.8%
Nov-2008 2.9% 1.6% 1.5%
Dec-2008 3.2% 1.8% 1.6%
Jan-2009 3.1% 1.9% 1.5%
Feb-2009 3.0% 1.9% 1.5%
Mar-2009 2.8% 1.8% 1.4%
Apr-2009 2.9% 2.0% 1.3%
May-2009 2.8% 1.6% 1.3%
Jun-2009 2.8% 1.6% 1.3%
Jul-2009 2.9% 1.7% 1.3%
Aug-2009 2.9% 1.6% 1.3%
Sep-2009 3.0% 1.6% 1.3%
Oct-2009 2.9% 1.5% 1.3%
Nov-2009 3.1% 1.4% 1.4%
Dec-2009 2.9% 1.5% 1.3%
Jan-2010 3.0% 1.4% 1.3%
Feb-2010 2.9% 1.4% 1.3%
Mar-2010 3.2% 1.4% 1.4%
Apr-2010 3.1% 1.3% 1.5%
May-2010 3.4% 1.3% 1.4%
Jun-2010 3.1% 1.5% 1.5%
Jul-2010 3.2% 1.6% 1.4%
Aug-2010 3.0% 1.4% 1.4%
Sep-2010 3.1% 1.4% 1.4%
Oct-2010 3.1% 1.3% 1.4%
Nov-2010 3.2% 1.4% 1.4%
Dec-2010 3.2% 1.4% 1.5%
Jan-2011 3.0% 1.3% 1.4%
Feb-2011 3.1% 1.3% 1.4%
Mar-2011 3.2% 1.3% 1.5%
Apr-2011 3.2% 1.3% 1.5%
May-2011 3.1% 1.3% 1.5%
Jun-2011 3.3% 1.4% 1.5%
Jul-2011 3.1% 1.3% 1.5%
Aug-2011 3.2% 1.3% 1.5%
Sep-2011 3.3% 1.3% 1.5%
Oct-2011 3.2% 1.3% 1.5%
Nov-2011 3.2% 1.3% 1.5%
Dec-2011 3.2% 1.3% 1.5%
Jan-2012 3.2% 1.2% 1.5%
Feb-2012 3.3% 1.3% 1.6%
Mar-2012 3.3% 1.2% 1.6%
Apr-2012 3.2% 1.4% 1.6%
May-2012 3.3% 1.4% 1.6%
Jun-2012 3.2% 1.3% 1.6%
Jul-2012 3.2% 1.2% 1.6%
Aug-2012 3.3% 1.4% 1.6%
Sep-2012 3.1% 1.3% 1.4%
Oct-2012 3.2% 1.3% 1.5%
Nov-2012 3.3% 1.3% 1.6%
Dec-2012 3.2% 1.2% 1.6%
Jan-2013 3.2% 1.2% 1.7%
Feb-2013 3.4% 1.2% 1.7%
Mar-2013 3.2% 1.3% 1.6%
Apr-2013 3.3% 1.3% 1.6%
May-2013 3.3% 1.3% 1.6%
Jun-2013 3.2% 1.2% 1.6%
Jul-2013 3.3% 1.2% 1.7%
Aug-2013 3.4% 1.2% 1.7%
Sep-2013 3.4% 1.3% 1.7%
Oct-2013 3.3% 1.1% 1.8%
Nov-2013 3.3% 1.1% 1.8%
Dec-2013 3.3% 1.2% 1.8%
Jan-2014 3.3% 1.2% 1.7%
Feb-2014 3.4% 1.2% 1.8%
Mar-2014 3.4% 1.2% 1.8%
Apr-2014 3.5% 1.2% 1.8%
May-2014 3.4% 1.2% 1.8%
Jun-2014 3.5% 1.2% 1.8%
Jul-2014 3.6% 1.2% 1.8%
Aug-2014 3.4% 1.2% 1.8%
Sep-2014 3.6% 1.2% 2.0%
Oct-2014 3.6% 1.2% 1.9%

 

Note: Shaded areas denote recessions. The hires rate is the number of hires during the entire month as a percent of total employment. The layoff rate is the number of layoffs and discharges during the entire month as a percent of total employment. The quits rate is the number of quits during the entire month as a percent of total employment.

Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey

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JOLTS Report Mostly on Trend: Jobs-Seekers-To-Job-Openings Ratio Falls Below 2.0 for the First Time Since the Great Recession

This morning’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) shows that the total number of job openings in October was 4.8 million, up 149,000 since September. Meanwhile, according to the Census’s Current Population Survey, there were nearly 9.0 million job seekers, which means there were 1.9 times as many job seekers as job openings in October. This is the first time since the Great Recession that the jobs-seekers-to-job-openings ratio fell below 2.0. While we are moving in the right direction, keep in mind that in a labor market with strong job opportunities, there would be roughly as many job openings as job seekers, while in October, job seekers still so outnumbered job openings that nearly half of the unemployed were not going to find a job no matter what they did. 

The slight decline in the jobs-seekers-to-job-openings ratio in October comes on the heels of a steady decrease since its high of 6.8-to-1 in July 2009, as you can see in the figure below. The ratio has fallen by 0.9 over the last year.

At the same time, the 9.0 million unemployed workers understates how many job openings will be needed when a robust jobs recovery finally begins, due to the existence of 5.8 million potential workers (in October) who are currently not in the labor market, but who would be if job opportunities were strong. Many of these “missing workers” will go back to looking for a job when the economy really picks up, so job openings will be needed for them, too.

JOLTS
Interactive

The job-seekers ratio, December 2000–October 2014

Month Unemployed job seekers per job opening
Dec-2000 1.1
Jan-2001 1.1
Feb-2001 1.3
Mar-2001 1.3
Apr-2001 1.3
May-2001 1.4
Jun-2001 1.5
Jul-2001 1.5
Aug-2001 1.7
Sep-2001 1.8
Oct-2001 2.1
Nov-2001 2.3
Dec-2001 2.3
Jan-2002 2.3
Feb-2002 2.4
Mar-2002 2.3
Apr-2002 2.6
May-2002 2.4
Jun-2002 2.5
Jul-2002 2.5
Aug-2002 2.4
Sep-2002 2.5
Oct-2002 2.4
Nov-2002 2.4
Dec-2002 2.8
Jan-2003 2.3
Feb-2003 2.5
Mar-2003 2.8
Apr-2003 2.8
May-2003 2.8
Jun-2003 2.8
Jul-2003 2.8
Aug-2003 2.7
Sep-2003 2.9
Oct-2003 2.7
Nov-2003 2.6
Dec-2003 2.5
Jan-2004 2.5
Feb-2004 2.4
Mar-2004 2.5
Apr-2004 2.4
May-2004 2.2
Jun-2004 2.4
Jul-2004 2.1
Aug-2004 2.2
Sep-2004 2.1
Oct-2004 2.1
Nov-2004 2.3
Dec-2004 2.1
Jan-2005 2.2
Feb-2005 2.1
Mar-2005 2.0
Apr-2005 1.9
May-2005 2.0
Jun-2005 1.9
Jul-2005 1.8
Aug-2005 1.8
Sep-2005 1.8
Oct-2005 1.8
Nov-2005 1.7
Dec-2005 1.7
Jan-2006 1.7
Feb-2006 1.7
Mar-2006 1.6
Apr-2006 1.6
May-2006 1.6
Jun-2006 1.6
Jul-2006 1.8
Aug-2006 1.6
Sep-2006 1.5
Oct-2006 1.5
Nov-2006 1.5
Dec-2006 1.5
Jan-2007 1.6
Feb-2007 1.5
Mar-2007 1.4
Apr-2007 1.5
May-2007 1.5
Jun-2007 1.5
Jul-2007 1.6
Aug-2007 1.6
Sep-2007 1.6
Oct-2007 1.7
Nov-2007 1.7
Dec-2007 1.8
Jan-2008 1.8
Feb-2008 1.9
Mar-2008 1.9
Apr-2008 2.0
May-2008 2.1
Jun-2008 2.3
Jul-2008 2.4
Aug-2008 2.6
Sep-2008 3.0
Oct-2008 3.1
Nov-2008 3.4
Dec-2008 3.7
Jan-2009 4.4
Feb-2009 4.6
Mar-2009 5.4
Apr-2009 6.1
May-2009 6.0
Jun-2009 6.2
Jul-2009 6.8
Aug-2009 6.5
Sep-2009 6.2
Oct-2009 6.5
Nov-2009 6.3
Dec-2009 6.1
Jan-2010 5.5
Feb-2010 6.0
Mar-2010 5.8
Apr-2010 5.0
May-2010 5.1
Jun-2010 5.3
Jul-2010 5.0
Aug-2010 5.0
Sep-2010 5.2
Oct-2010 4.8
Nov-2010 4.9
Dec-2010 5.0
Jan-2011 4.8
Feb-2011 4.6
Mar-2011 4.4
Apr-2011 4.5
May-2011 4.5
Jun-2011 4.3
Jul-2011 4.0
Aug-2011 4.3
Sep-2011 3.9
Oct-2011 4.0
Nov-2011 4.2
Dec-2011 3.7
Jan-2012 3.5
Feb-2012 3.7
Mar-2012 3.3
Apr-2012 3.5
May-2012 3.4
Jun-2012 3.3
Jul-2012 3.5
Aug-2012 3.4
Sep-2012 3.4
Oct-2012 3.2
Nov-2012 3.2
Dec-2012 3.4
Jan-2013 3.3
Feb-2013 3.0
Mar-2013 3.0
Apr-2013 3.1
May-2013 3.0
Jun-2013 3.0
Jul-2013 3.0
Aug-2013 2.9
Sep-2013 2.8
Oct-2013 2.8
Nov-2013 2.6
Dec-2013 2.6
Jan-2014 2.6
Feb-2014 2.5
Mar-2014 2.5
Apr-2014 2.2
May-2014 2.1
Jun-2014 2.0
Jul-2014 2.1
Aug-2014 2.0
Sep-2014 2.0
Oct-2014 1.9

 

Note: Shaded areas denote recessions.

Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and Current Population Survey

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Furthermore, a job opening when the labor market is weak often does not mean the same thing as a job opening when the labor market is strong. There is a wide range of “recruitment intensity” with which a company can deal with a job opening. For example, if a company is trying hard to fill an opening, it may increase the compensation package and/or scale back the required qualifications. Conversely, if it is not trying very hard, it may hike up the required qualifications and/or offer a meager compensation package. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that recruitment intensity is cyclical—it tends to be stronger when the labor market is strong, and weaker when the labor market is weak. This means that when a job opening goes unfilled when the labor market is weak, as it is today, companies may very well be holding out for an overly-qualified candidate at a cheap price.

A Victory for U.S. and Migrant Workers

For 5 years, the Obama administration has been trying to make reasonable improvements to one of the United States’ main guestworker program for lower skilled workers. The H-2B visa is used by businesses that want low-cost gardeners, hotel maids, cooks and dishwashers, forestry workers, workers to pick and pack crab meat, and various other kinds of laborers. The businesses that hire H-2B workers don’t want U.S. workers who expect a decent wage and they don’t want U.S. workers who might get sick of poor working conditions and quit to find a better job. They want migrant laborers from abroad, who may think being paid a poverty-level wage is a great windfall and who can’t quit—no matter how abusive the working conditions are—because they will be deported if they try to switch jobs. Many H-2B workers secure their temporary jobs in the United States by paying labor recruiters thousands of dollars to connect them to U.S. employers. The employers that ultimately hire them benefit from this arrangement because H-2Bs workers are so indebted to recruiters that their lives will be in danger if they return home before their contract is finished. Businesses call this a “reliable” workforce.

The Bush administration issued rules for the H-2B visa that gave businesses what they wanted: below-market wages so they could discourage U.S. workers from applying and underpay the migrants who did apply. EPI’s analysis has shown that the Bush rules led to wages that fell more than 25 percent below the true prevailing wage. Migrant advocates sued to have the Bush rules thrown out, and a federal court agreed. So the Obama administration set out to rewrite the rules to protect both U.S. workers who might want some of these jobs and the mostly Mexican migrants who come to work with H-2B visas. The Department of Labor issued rules to require more honest recruiting of U.S. workers before a business can look abroad, rules to protect the migrants against exploitation by recruiters and businesses, and—most importantly—a rule to set a true prevailing wage that businesses using the H-2B visa have to offer and pay to U.S. and migrant workers alike.

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Growing Trans-Pacific Trade Deficits Set the Stage for Growing Trade-Related Job Displacement

U.S. trade and investment agreements have almost always resulted in growing trade deficits and job losses. Under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, growing trade deficits with Mexico cost 682,900 U.S. jobs as of 2010, and U.S.-Mexico trade deficits and job displacement have increased since then. President Obama promised that the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement would increase U.S. goods exports by $10 to $11 billion, supporting 70,000 American jobs from increased exports alone. However, in the first two years after that deal went into effect, U.S. exports actually declined, and growing trade deficits with Korea cost nearly 60,000 U.S. jobs.

This is important to keep in mind as negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) resume in Washington this week. The United States has a large and growing trade deficit with the 11 other countries in the proposed TPP. This deficit has increased from $110.3 billion in 1997 to an estimated $261.7 billion in 2014, as shown in the figure below. With trade deficits already on the rise, it makes no sense to sign a deal that would exacerbate them further.

Meanwhile several members of the proposed TPP deal are well known currency manipulators, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan—the world’s second largest currency manipulator (behind China). Eliminating currency manipulation could reduce U.S. trade deficits, increase GDP, and create 2.3 million to 5.8 million U.S. jobs. The United States would be foolish to sign a trade and investment deal with these countries that does not include strong prohibitions on currency manipulation. Yet U.S. Trade Representative Froman has testified that currency manipulation has not been discussed in the TPP negotiations.

Trade and investment agreements negotiated in recent decades have been bad deals for working Americans. Fast track legislation would deprive Congress of the opportunity to amend proposed trade deals, leading to growing job displacement and downward pressure on American wages. It is time for Congress to take notice and assert its rightful role in providing advice and consent in the governance of U.S. trade and investment with other nations.

Nominal Wages Continue to Indicate How Far the Economy is from Full Recovery

One month of adding upwards of 300,000 jobs is not enough to say the economy is strong. In fact, adding jobs at November’s rate of growth wouldn’t lead us back to pre-recession labor market health until October 2016. And, then, there’s the story of nominal wage growth. Last month, nominal—i.e., not adjusted for inflation—wages grew only 2.1 percent, about on pace with what we’ve seen the last five years. This sluggish wage growth is a key sign that there’s still too much slack remaining in the labor market.

Let me put 2.1 percent nominal wage growth into perspective. The Federal Reserve’s mandate is to balance the benefits of low unemployment versus the benefits of keeping inflation stable. One sign of growing inflationary pressure is when nominal (not real) wages are rising significantly faster than the Fed’s target rate of inflation (currently 2 percent, which is not set in stone but which is widely acknowledged to be what the Fed is aiming for) plus productivity growth (between 1.5 to 2 percent). Putting those together, we get a target between 3.5 and 4 percent. Now consider our recent nominal wage growth of 2.1 percent. The fact is that nominal wages have been growing far slower than any reasonable wage target for the last five years.

To provide some context and help explain the role nominal wage growth plays in policymaking, we created a new EPI feature, the Nominal Wage Tracker. This page hosts the most up-to-date information on nominal wages, tracks how the cumulative effect of wages continues to lag behind target levels, and relates both of these to labor’s share of corporate-sector income. One of the statistics our tracker measures is the size of the accumulated gap between target and actual nominal wage growth, which now stands at $3.16 an hour.

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Even At 321,000 Jobs a Month, It Will Be Nearly Two Years Before the Economy Looks Like 2007

Dramatically falling employment in the Great Recession and its aftermath has left us with a jobs shortfall of 5.8 million—that’s the amount of jobs needed to keep up with growth in the potential labor force. Each year, the population keeps growing, and along with it, the number of people who could be working. To get back to the same labor market we had in 2007, we need to not only make up the jobs we lost, but gain enough jobs to account for this growth.

The chart below projects out the potential labor force into the future. We ran a variety of scenarios to determine how many jobs we would need to create each month to catch up to that line. The reality is that at November’s pace of job growth—which was an above average month—it will take until October 2016 to hit the employment level needed to return the economy to the labor market health that prevailed in 2007.

Yes, the jobs growth last month is good news, and I’m optimistic that we will continue to see job growth that strong or stronger in the upcoming months. But, it’s also higher than we’ve seen lately and could get revised downward next month. If we were to take the average monthly job growth over the last six months, we wouldn’t return to pre-recession labor market health until July 2017.

On the other hand, if we want to return to the labor market health that prevailed in 2007 much sooner, say, by creating 450,000 jobs per month, we would get there in March 2016. So, yes, 321,000 is a nice surprise, however, between the jobs gap and the sluggish wage growth, it is clear that we are fall from a full recovery.

It Is Indeed Morally Odious to Put Millions of Americans Through Harrowing Pain for Political Advantage

Yesterday, Ezra wrote a piece on a now-famous interview that Chris Rock did with Frank Rich. You should read the interview, it’s great. At one point, Rock floats the idea that President Obama would have received more credit for his efforts to fight the Great Recession if he had waited for a while after taking office before addressing the downturn.  As Rock says in this snippet:

“When Obama first got elected, he should have let it all just drop.

Let what drop?

Just let the country flatline. Let the auto industry die. Don’t bail anybody out. In sports, that’s what any new GM does. They make sure that the catastrophe is on the old management and then they clean up. They don’t try to save old management’s mistakes.”

Ezra spends most of the article making the case that this strategy would be a political loser, but first notes (correctly) that:

The big problem with this idea — which I’ve heard other liberals propose in the past — is it’s morally odious: it would have meant putting millions of Americans through harrowing pain in order to help Obama out politically.”

This is exactly right (well, I haven’t actually heard many liberals at all say this, but moving on); but we should remember that there really is a non-hypothetical set of policymakers who have precisely put millions of Americans through harrowing pain solely for their own political advantage: Republican members of Congress.

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What to Watch on Jobs Day: Unveiling a New Nominal Wage Tracker

EPI has long documented wage trends. We have tracked real (inflation-adjusted) wage growth over the last month, over this business cycle, over the last 35 years, and over the last 60 years. What we measure when we look at real wages is how well workers and their families are doing—whether their wages are keeping up with inflation and whether the vast majority of Americans are seeing any increase in their standards of living. And, we’ve also proposed ways to Raise America’s Pay.

But wages can provide information on issues besides just the state of American living standards. They can also be a key indicator of macroeconomic health. One example is the degree to which wage growth puts upward pressure on prices. The Federal Reserve’s mandate is to balance the benefits of low unemployment versus the benefits of keeping inflation stable. One sign of growing inflationary pressure is when nominal (not real) wages are rising significantly faster than the Fed’s target rate of inflation (currently 2 percent, which is not set in stone but which is widely acknowledged to be what the Fed is aiming for) plus productivity growth (between 1.5 to 2 percent). The fact is that nominal wages have been growing far slower than any reasonable wage target for the last five years.

Tomorrow, we are unveiling our new Nominal Wage Tracker, which will host the most up-to-date information on nominal wages, released every month with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Report. We will explain how slow wage growth continues to be a key signal of how far the U.S. economy is from a full recovery. In addition, we will track the cumulative effect of the ongoing failure of wages to hit target levels, and how this relates to labor’s share of corporate income.

Given this, the Nominal Wage Tracker will be a key tool to analyze whether the Federal Reserve should take action in the near-term to slow the economy. So far the wage tracker data shows that we are far from a full recovery. And, sluggish nominal wage growth is a key sign that there’s still too much slack remaining in the labor market.

Apple and Camp Bow Wow: Sharing Strategies to Keep Wages Low

Matt O’Brien hit the nail on the head in a Wonkblog post about non-compete agreements for doggy day care workers yesterday. Camp Bow Wow, as Dave Jamieson reports, forces new hires to agree not to work for a competing business within 25 miles of their location’s “franchise territory” for two years after leaving the company. Dog sitters obviously don’t learn valuable trade secrets that have to be protected from competitors, so something else is motivating the chain’s non-compete clause—just as trade secrets were not driving Jimmy John’s to restrict where its employees could work when they moved on from the sandwich shop. That motivation is wage suppression. As O’Brien puts it:

“Non-competes create a Balkanized labor force where you’re not a sandwich maker, but either a Jimmy John’s or Subway sandwich maker. Workers, in other words, are being forced to pledge fealty to companies that can still fire them at will. The payoff, of course, is that workers who, practically-speaking, can’t switch jobs are workers who can’t ask for raises.”

It’s common sense that increased experience in an occupation should eventually lead to higher wages and that if, for example, Camp Bow Wow doesn’t sufficiently reward an employee’s experience, some other dog care chain will. The employee might look around and find that experienced dog sitters are paid $1.00 an hour more at Camp Canine. But a non-compete agreement keeps the employee from jumping ship to take the better-paying job. A two-year restriction on competing dog-care employment means the employee has to leave the area to get the benefit of her experience. It’s not slavery, but as O’Brien points out, it’s not the kind of freedom capitalism promises, either. (If the National Right to Work Committee weren’t simply a union-hating sham, it would take up the cause of workers who are being forced to accept such contracts.)

Limiting the right to quit and take another job leaves the employer with ever more bargaining power. How do you negotiate a raise if your employer knows you can’t take your experience and knowledge elsewhere?

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Adding Good Tax Cuts to Bad Doesn’t Make Tax Extenders a Good Deal

Last week, President Obama indicated he would veto an emerging Senate deal that cobbled together $440 billion worth of tax breaks, with big business reaping the vast majority of the benefits. The rationale for the veto threat was that the potential “tax extenders” deal did not make permanent the expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC), which were originally included in the Recovery Act and are currently set to expire in 2017.

The veto threat has been portrayed as dividing Democrats in two groups: those that would have been willing to vote for the nearly-agreed upon $440 billion tax deal as is, versus those that would have only accepted the deal had it included the EITC and CTC.

Not mentioned: anyone who thinks that simply tacking on an expanded EITC and CTC on top of the Senate agreement would still be bad policy, and that these issues should get disentangled, quickly—a group which, spoiler alert, contains EPI.

To be clear, the expanded EITC and CTC are good policies, and both should be a permanent part of our tax code. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes that letting the expansions expire would push 16 million people—including 8 million children—either into or deeper into poverty. The steep progressivity of taxes at the bottom of the income distribution helps a lot of needy people and also aids the cause of economic recovery; the people that receive the EITC and CTC tend to spend the money, helping it circulate throughout the economy quickly. And the cost for making these expansions permanent—$96 billion between now and the end of the 10-year budget window in 2024—is pretty modest compared to the packages floating around the House and Senate this week.

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Extending Bad Fiscal Policy with Tax Extenders

As we near the end of the calendar year, we’ve once again reached tax extender season—the time of year when senators and representatives set aside their differences to hand out tax breaks, loopholes, credits, and deductions as if they got them at a Black Friday sale. For the uninitiated, “tax extenders” refers to a whole package of supposedly temporary tax breaks that are lumped together and passed into law every year or two, like clockwork.

Tax extender packages are genetically designed to sail through even the most acrimonious Congress. For one thing, there’s something for everyone. Supporters of schoolteachers will vote for the package because it includes a deduction for teachers to buy items for their classrooms, even if it includes tax breaks they don’t like at all, like those that benefit thoroughbred racehorse owners and NASCAR racetrack developers. (Policymakers that like watching fast things race in circles, but don’t care much for teachers, are also happy to vote for the package.) Moreover, the temporary nature of extenders packages allows Congress to simultaneously pretend that the tax breaks will actually expire soon (so as to deflate the budgetary cost of the legislation) while telling key constituencies—most of whom happen to be big businesses—that their cherished tax breaks are effectively permanent because they have always been extended before.

This week, Congress appears to be zeroing on a tax extender deal to be voted on when lawmakers return to Washington after Thanksgiving—and somehow, the biannual tax-cut fest is worse than normal.

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Another Holiday Tradition: Arguing Economics at the Dinner Table

The holidays are coming, and this means dealing with the stereotypical uncle or brother-in-law who will make for a tense dinnertime by (among other things) loudly spouting conservative talking points on the economy.

There’s not time to detail the full Bingo board of silly views on the economy, but we can go over five themes that regularly recur, along with some detail on why they’re wrong.

1) The government’s spending too much—they should tighten their belts the same way households had to following the Great Recession

This “tighten the belts” line is perhaps the worst analogy ever. And yes, it’s bipartisan silliness. Simply put, if everybody (households, businesses, and governments) tightens their belts together (i.e., stops spending money) then the result is just a steep recession. Even with increased federal government spending, tightened household and business spending in 2008-2009 led to a savage economic downturn. Actively cutting government spending would’ve made it worse. Much worse. There really is tons of evidence that the increases in government spending during and right after the Great Recession (the Recovery Act, mostly) made the recession much lighter and the recovery come faster.

But, say you continue to disbelieve the overwhelming evidence that spending cuts slow growth and worsen recessions. Let’s just look at the data on federal spending in the recovery since the Great Recession versus recovery from the previous three recessions (in the early 1980s, early 1990s, and early 2000s) to see if even the premise of “exploding spending” in recent years is right. The figure below shows (inflation adjusted) federal government spending over the full business cycle (centered on the recession’s trough in the middle of 2009.

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CPI Shows Real Wages Continue to be Flat

While the economy continues to create jobs, we’ve been tracking nominal wages as well as job growth, and it’s clear from this that continued slack in the labor market has left workers without bargaining power to bid up their wages. And it may be some time before wage growth gets anywhere near 3.5 to 4 percent, a growth rate that would be consistent with the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target and assumption of 1.5 percent productivity. Eventually, wage growth at that rate could even begin to claw back labor share of corporate-sector income, which has not even started moving in the right direction since the recession began.

This week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the Consumer Price Index for October 2014. These data allow us to look at real (inflation-adjusted) wages. The figure below shows real average hourly earnings of all private employees (top line) and production/nonsupervisory workers (bottom line) since the recession began in December 2007. For both series, you can see that real wages fell during the recession, then jumped up in late 2008 in direct response to a drop in inflation. When inflation falls and nominal wages hold steady, the mathematical result is a rise in inflation-adjusted wags. After the deflation leading up to 2009 stopped boosting real wages, wage growth has been flat.

Real Wage
Interactive

Real average hourly earnings, December 2007– November 2014

All private employees Production/Nonsupervisory
Dec-2007 $23.84 $19.90
Jan-2008 $23.79 $19.88
Feb-2008 $23.81 $19.89
Mar-2008 $23.83 $19.90
Apr-2008 $23.79 $19.90
May-2008 $23.76 $19.86
Jun-2008 $23.56 $19.72
Jul-2008 $23.47 $19.65
Aug-2008 $23.62 $19.76
Sep-2008 $23.63 $19.77
Oct-2008 $23.89 $20.01
Nov-2008 $24.44 $20.43
Dec-2008 $24.71 $20.67
Jan-2009 $24.65 $20.64
Feb-2009 $24.62 $20.60
Mar-2009 $24.69 $20.69
Apr-2009 $24.71 $20.69
May-2009 $24.69 $20.68
Jun-2009 $24.51 $20.55
Jul-2009 $24.56 $20.59
Aug-2009 $24.56 $20.59
Sep-2009 $24.51 $20.60
Oct-2009 $24.50 $20.58
Nov-2009 $24.48 $20.58
Dec-2009 $24.47 $20.60
Jan-2010 $24.50 $20.64
Feb-2010 $24.55 $20.68
Mar-2010 $24.57 $20.68
Apr-2010 $24.61 $20.74
May-2010 $24.66 $20.80
Jun-2010 $24.65 $20.81
Jul-2010 $24.68 $20.81
Aug-2010 $24.68 $20.83
Sep-2010 $24.69 $20.82
Oct-2010 $24.68 $20.86
Nov-2010 $24.63 $20.81
Dec-2010 $24.54 $20.72
Jan-2011 $24.58 $20.76
Feb-2011 $24.48 $20.68
Mar-2011 $24.37 $20.58
Apr-2011 $24.34 $20.55
May-2011 $24.32 $20.53
Jun-2011 $24.31 $20.50
Jul-2011 $24.34 $20.53
Aug-2011 $24.25 $20.48
Sep-2011 $24.23 $20.45
Oct-2011 $24.34 $20.49
Nov-2011 $24.29 $20.49
Dec-2011 $24.30 $20.48
Jan-2012 $24.27 $20.44
Feb-2012 $24.26 $20.41
Mar-2012 $24.26 $20.40
Apr-2012 $24.29 $20.45
May-2012 $24.33 $20.47
Jun-2012 $24.37 $20.47
Jul-2012 $24.43 $20.52
Aug-2012 $24.29 $20.41
Sep-2012 $24.24 $20.33
Oct-2012 $24.17 $20.32
Nov-2012 $24.31 $20.42
Dec-2012 $24.38 $20.45
Jan-2013 $24.40 $20.50
Feb-2013 $24.31 $20.43
Mar-2013 $24.38 $20.50
Apr-2013 $24.47 $20.55
May-2013 $24.46 $20.54
Jun-2013 $24.47 $20.53
Jul-2013 $24.42 $20.53
Aug-2013 $24.46 $20.53
Sep-2013 $24.46 $20.55
Oct-2013 $24.49 $20.58
Nov-2013 $24.52 $20.61
Dec-2013 $24.48 $20.61
Jan-2014 $24.50 $20.63
Feb-2014 $24.55 $20.71
Mar-2014 $24.53 $20.65
Apr-2014 $24.47 $20.62
May-2014 $24.44 $20.59
Jun-2014 $24.44 $20.58
Jul-2014 $24.43 $20.59
Aug-2014 $24.56 $20.69
Sep-2014 $24.54 $20.66
Oct-2014 $24.57 $20.70
Nov-2014 $24.66 $20.74

Note: Earnings are adjusted to November 2014 dollars.

Source: Author analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics's Current Employment Statistics and Consumer Price Index, public data series.

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The second figure below charts the year over year change in real hourly earnings for both series over the last four years, notably after the spikes in real wages associated with a brief deflationary period. From the figure, it is obvious that wages for both series—all private sector and production/nonsupervisory workers—have stayed close to zero over the entire period. Both the nominal wage series and the real wage series tell a consistent story. Wages are continuing to flat line far into the so-called recovery.

Real Wages
Interactive

Year-over-year change in real average hourly earnings of all private nonfarm employees and private production/ nonsupervisory employees, November 2009– November 2014

All Private Employees Production/Nonsupervisory
Nov-2009 0.15% 0.76%
Dec-2009 -0.98% -0.31%
Jan-2010 -0.62% 0.01%
Feb-2010 -0.32% 0.35%
Mar-2010 -0.50% -0.01%
Apr-2010 -0.40% 0.25%
May-2010 -0.10% 0.57%
Jun-2010 0.55% 1.26%
Jul-2010 0.46% 1.08%
Aug-2010 0.49% 1.18%
Sep-2010 0.73% 1.08%
Oct-2010 0.72% 1.34%
Nov-2010 0.60% 1.12%
Dec-2010 0.29% 0.56%
Jan-2011 0.30% 0.56%
Feb-2011 -0.26% 0.02%
Mar-2011 -0.80% -0.52%
Apr-2011 -1.13% -0.94%
May-2011 -1.36% -1.30%
Jun-2011 -1.39% -1.46%
Jul-2011 -1.35% -1.35%
Aug-2011 -1.74% -1.70%
Sep-2011 -1.85% -1.80%
Oct-2011 -1.36% -1.75%
Nov-2011 -1.38% -1.58%
Dec-2011 -1.01% -1.16%
Jan-2012 -1.23% -1.53%
Feb-2012 -0.90% -1.31%
Mar-2012 -0.47% -0.89%
Apr-2012 -0.19% -0.48%
May-2012 0.03% -0.30%
Jun-2012 0.24% -0.16%
Jul-2012 0.35% -0.03%
Aug-2012 0.17% -0.35%
Sep-2012 0.03% -0.57%
Oct-2012 -0.68% -0.86%
Nov-2012 0.11% -0.35%
Dec-2012 0.33% -0.13%
Jan-2013 0.51% 0.26%
Feb-2013 0.18% 0.12%
Mar-2013 0.51% 0.51%
Apr-2013 0.75% 0.51%
May-2013 0.52% 0.35%
Jun-2013 0.44% 0.30%
Jul-2013 -0.04% 0.02%
Aug-2013 0.71% 0.62%
Sep-2013 0.92% 1.06%
Oct-2013 1.30% 1.32%
Nov-2013 0.86% 0.97%
Dec-2013 0.44% 0.81%
Jan-2014 0.41% 0.63%
Feb-2014 0.99% 1.33%
Mar-2014 0.60% 0.75%
Apr-2014 0.01% 0.33%
May-2014 -0.08% 0.25%
Jun-2014 -0.11% 0.21%
Jul-2014 0.05% 0.28%
Aug-2014 0.40% 0.75%
Sep-2014 0.33% 0.55%
Oct-2014 0.34% 0.56%
Nov-2014 0.82% 0.87%

Note: Earnings are adjusted to November 2014 dollars. Light shaded area denotes recession.

Source: Author analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics's Current Employment Statistics and Consumer Price Index, public data series.

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Amazing Black Friday Deals, Brought to You by the American Taxpayer

As retailers and consumers gear up for the holiday shopping season, it’s a good time to take a closer look at what things are like for the person on the other side of the cash register. Over the past year, there have been an increasing number of retail strikes as workers in the industry call for higher pay and better working conditions. Why should this matter to the ordinary shopper just out looking for the perfect gift? Because poor wages in retail may be shrinking your paycheck as well, and in more ways than one.

Retail workers tend to be paid significantly lower than workers in other industries. As the graphic below shows, the median hourly wage for workers in the retail sector is 32.4% lower than the median hourly wage for all other industries.1 Importantly, the lower wages in retail are not simply the result of demographic factors that might contribute to lower wages, such as the age or education levels of typical retail workers. Using a regression approach to control for demographic and regional factors, the data show that wages in retail are 18% lower than in other industries.2 This is the “wage penalty” of working in retail.

The prevalence of low-wage work in the retail sector leads to lower annual incomes and higher concentrations of poverty among retail workers. In 2013, the average annual weekly earnings of nonsupervisory retail workers was $423—that’s less than $23,000 per year, and more than $500 below the federal poverty line for a family of four. It should come as no surprise then that poverty rates for retail workers are significantly higher than for workers in other industries. The poverty rate for workers in retail was 10.1 percent, compared with 6.6 percent of workers outside of retail.3

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The President’s Actions on Immigration Will Make America Better

I can’t for the life of me understand what all the noise is about over the president’s plan to issue an executive order on immigration this evening. I remember many years ago when Ronald Reagan issued an executive order that gave many immigrants “amnesty.” At that time, Democrats did not threaten to sue him, because everyone said that it was the right thing to do. So why is it wrong now?

When President Reagan issued his executive order, many people from all around the world benefited. They had lived here for many years, working and living under false pretense, making minimum wage, and taking any job just to be employed—even though many were highly educated and had college degrees obtained right here in America. The same situation applies to those affected immigrants today. So why was it right to give those people under Ronald Reagan’s signature an opportunity, and wrong for Obama to do the same for the millions of immigrants who have lived—many for ten years or more—worked, paid taxes, and received an education in this country?

The Republicans have many immigrants in their ranks, and they must know that the president is doing the right thing but, because he is taking the initiative to make things right for these undocumented immigrants—just like he took the initiative to give health care to millions of Americans—they’re once again foaming at the mouth about it.

The president’s actions tonight will go a long way to make America better, both socially and economically.

Alyce Anderson is a Liberian American and the Executive Assistant to EPI President Larry Mishel.

Why Tax Cuts Aren’t the Answer to Wage Problems

This post originally ran on the Wall Street Journals Think Tank blog.

The New York Times David Leonhardt is a sharp observer of American economic trends, but I think he took a wrong turn in his Monday piece on wages—and data released Wednesday by the Congressional Budget Office helps show why.

Mr. Leonhardt pointed out the dismal wage trends for the vast majority of American workers in recent decades and how it would be a heavy policy lift to reverse them. This seems right to me. But then he wrote:

“Washington could definitely do more to help growth: better infrastructure, a less burdensome tax code, a less wasteful health care system, more bargaining power for workers and, above all, stronger schools and colleges, to lift the skills of the nation’s work force.”

As they might say on “Seinfeld,” you can’t “yada yada” more bargaining power for workers. It’s the most important part of the story.

The root of the U.S. wage problem (which is, in turn, the root of America’s inequality problem) is that most workers aren’t seeing their wages keep pace with overall productivity growth. The policies on Mr. Leonhardt’s list are worthy, but most would not reliably close this gap between productivity and pay. Boosting the bargaining power of workers would.

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President Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration Will Improve the Wages and Working Conditions of Unauthorized Immigrants and U.S.-Born Workers Alike

The internet and Twitter have virtually exploded over President Obama’s scheduled announcement tonight at 8 p.m. EST, regarding the actions he will take to reform the immigration system without Congress, relying on the legal authority he has to execute the laws of the United States. Most of the discussion surrounding this has focused on: 1) what the substance of the reforms will be and, regarding the most important reform—shielding unauthorized immigrants from deportation—estimating the share of the unauthorized population that will be eligible; 2) whether the executive reforms are lawful without a legislative directive from Congress; and 3) how the reforms will impact American politics (including whether there will be a government shutdown and if the reforms will “poison the well” for cooperation between Republicans and Democrats on other topics).

Tonight we’ll find out the exact substance of the reforms. And I’ve already discussed at length here and here how temporarily removing the threat of deportation (also known as “deferred action”) for up to four or five million unauthorized immigrants who have resided in the United States for at least five or ten years, and granting them employment authorization—is well within the bounds of the president’s legal authority to act. The Constitution allows the president prosecutorial discretion to enforce the law selectively when he has limited resources available to him, and he’ll be targeting those resources more effectively if he focuses the government’s immigration enforcement machinery on criminals and terrorists, rather than otherwise law-abiding immigrants who have deep ties to the nation and U.S. citizen children and spouses. Regarding the political impacts of the action, I’ll leave that up to the political analysts and prognosticators. But the one aspect that receives too little attention is the positive impact that deferred action and work authorization will have on the wages and workplace bargaining power of the unauthorized immigrant workers in our labor market who might qualify for the president’s new deferred action.

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Fair Work Scheduling: Real Solutions and Phony Ones

American workers are increasingly concerned about how their employers schedule their work time, and for good reason. The spread of just-in-time scheduling, facilitated by computer programs that match employee shifts with customer traffic, is making life harder for the employees whose schedules are constantly changed, who report for work after long commutes only to find their hours have been cut—say from an expected eight that day, down to only one or two—and right at the last minute. That can make it close to impossible for workers to plan arrangements for child care, class schedules, or even transportation to and from work. Other employees are taken advantage of by employers who schedule them for long hours without advance notice, disrupting the same child care, education, and transportation schedules(though at least the excessive hours result in higher pay, if they’re covered by overtime protections and entitled to time-and-a-half for hours in excess of 40 in a week).

Politicians have two kinds of responses to these problems. Some are interested in real solutions, like the San Francisco Predictable Scheduling ordinance approved yesterday, which outlaws unpredictable scheduling practices at retail chain stores and promotes equal treatment of part-time workers. State law in California already requires employers to compensate employees who report to work but are given less than half their scheduled hours, and requires employers to pay for an extra hour of work when there are unpaid interruptions of the work day longer than a bona fide meal period.

Other politicians only pretend to do something for workers without doing it—or even make matters worse. A perfect example of that kind of fraudulent response is H.R. 1406, the House Republicans’ perennial answer to demands for improvements in the work-family balance. They call their bill the “Working Families Flexibility Act,” but the only flexibility it provides is to employers, rather than to employees. It gives employers the right not to pay anything for overtime hours in the week in which they are worked, but to instead consider giving time-and-a-half off with pay at some later point in the year. If it never turns out to be convenient, the employer has to repay the employee for her overtime at the end of 12 months. In effect, the bill authorizes an interest-free loan of the employees’ overtime pay with no guarantee of any time off.

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The Fortunes of the Top 1 Percent

Pity the top 1 percent in America. At the end of 2012, their taxes went up. First, Congress allowed the top tax rates on ordinary income and capital gains to increase back to 2001 levels (39.6 percent and 20 percent respectively), and the top tax rate on dividends increased to 20 percent (which is lower than the 2001 rate of 39.6 percent). Second, the Affordable Care Act net investment income tax of 3.8 percent and the additional Medicare tax of 0.9 percent took effect for high income taxpayers. Third, the limitation on itemized deductions and the personal exemption phase-out were reinstated for taxpayers with income over $250,000 (basically the top 3 percent). Lastly, the temporary payroll tax holiday, which reduced the Social Security payroll tax rate to 4.2 percent, expired (the tax rate is back to 6.2 percent for all workers).

With all these new (and old) taxes, how are the 1 percent doing? The Congressional Budget Office recently released a report on the distribution of household income and taxes for 2011, which may provide an answer.

CBO’s analysis shows trends in the average tax rate and income between 1979 and 2011, for various income groups. Between 1979 and 2011, the inflation-adjusted before-tax income of the top 1 percent grew by 175 percent; the income of the middle 60 percent grew by 29 percent. Over the same period, the inflation-adjusted after-tax income of the top 1 percent increased by 200 percent, compared to 40 percent for the middle 60 percent of the income distribution. At least in 2011, the top 1 percent was doing very well—especially compared to everyone else.

Of course, this information does not answer our question. CBO also estimated taxes under the 2013 tax law (assuming the 2011 distribution of income) and showed that average tax rates would indeed be higher across the income distribution. The average tax rate of the top 1 percent would be 33 percent under the 2013 tax code rather than the 29 percent under the 2011 tax code—a whopping 4 percentage point increase. However, even with this increase, the average tax rate of the top 1 percent is lower than it was in 1979, 1980, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997!

With the tax increase after 2012, the inflation-adjusted after-tax income of the top 1 percent increased by over 180 percent since 1979; income for the middle 60 percent increased by less than 40 percent since 1979. Even with the additional taxes, the folks in the top 1 percent are doing much better than they were in 1979 and much better than everyone else; they don’t need pity.

Washington Post “Wage Freeze” Brain Freeze

The Washington Post published an editorial on the “wage freeze” on Sunday, revealing the emptiness of its analysis and offering no recommendations for generating wage growth. At least there was acknowledgment of the problem, that “middle-class family incomes are still not growing very much” and “average income for the bottom 90 percent of households has barely grown at all, in real terms, over the last four decades.”

Why care is answered with:

“If you believe that democracy’s social foundation is a strong middle class, this trend is worrisome not only for its human cost, but also for the threat it poses to U.S. political health.”

So far so good, the problem is widespread (the entire bottom 90 percent), it is long-term (last four decades) and it matters (for our democracy). I agree.

What shall we do? The editorial says we need to acknowledge how “difficult it will be to reverse middle-class income stagnation” and offers no suggestions whatsoever. I guess that’s better than bad suggestions, such as tax cuts, either temporary or permanent, or that sending more people to college is the answer (it is not: the wages of college graduates are stagnant, especially young college grads many of whom are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Remember, the problem afflicts the bottom 90 percent!). (more…)

The Stakes are High at the Fed

On Friday, EPI’s Larry Mishel and I joined a group of workers and community activists who are urging the Federal Reserve to resist pressures to raise interest rates before the labor market has fully recovered and who are also calling for greater public input into the selection of regional Fed bank presidents and board members.

At a press briefing outside the Fed before the meeting, organized by the Center for Popular Democracy, featuring workers and community organizers, I delivered the following remarks:

Hello, I’m Josh Bivens, the Director of Research and Policy at the Economic Policy Institute here in Washington, DC and a macroeconomist. I’m going to try to provide some economic context for today’s meeting and highlight the high stakes in this debate.

But I’ll start just by saying that I think today’s meeting with Federal Reserve Chair Yellen and this group is a hugely encouraging event.

Encouraging because the Federal Reserve is the most influential policymaking institution in the United States—and likely the world—yet far too few American realize the enormous stake they have in decisions made there.

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Parsing the Skills Gap in Job Openings and Hires Data

The September Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data released yesterday showed job openings falling as hires rose. Over the business cycle thus far, both opening and hires fell dramatically over the recession, then have been climbing back up throughout the recovery.

What’s striking from the first figure below is that openings fell at a faster rate than hires during the recession and have also returned at a faster rate over the recovery. Both are now at least back to their prerecession levels, and growth in openings has now overtaken growth in hires.  However, returning to their immediate prerecession levels is not a particular milestone, because it fails to take into account the growth in the working age population.

The recent excess of openings over hires has led some to infer that this suggests a shortage for some types of workers, and evidence that a mismatch between workers’ skills and employers’ demands has become a key labor market problem. We should note that there are substantial other pieces of evidence that are inconsistent with this “skills mismatch” theory. For example, there are still 2 unemployed workers for every job opening in the economy. And, there are no sectors where jobseekers outnumber job openings. That is pretty strong evidence against any shortage of skills in the economy today, but the gap in the growth of opening and hires have led some to suggest that there is a one.

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The Number of Unemployed Exceeds the Number of Available Jobs Across All Sectors

The figure below shows the number of unemployed workers and the number of job openings in September, by industry. This figure is useful for diagnosing what’s behind our sustained high unemployment. If today’s labor market woes were the result of skills shortages or mismatches, we would expect to see some sectors where there are more unemployed workers than job openings, and others where there are more job openings than unemployed workers. What we find, however, is that unemployed workers exceed jobs openings across the board.

Some sectors have been closing the gap faster than others. Health care and social assistance, which has been consistently adding jobs throughout the business cycle, has a ratio quickly approaching 1-to-1. On the other end of the spectrum, there are 6.5 unemployed construction workers for every job opening. Removing those two extremes, there are between 1.1 and 3.1 as many unemployed workers as job openings in every other industry. This demonstrates that the main problem in the labor market is a broad-based lack of demand for workers—not, as is often claimed, available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.

JOLTS
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Unemployed and job openings, by industry (in millions)

Industry Unemployed Job openings
Professional and business services 1.1383 .8208
Health care and social assistance .7028 .6798
Retail trade 1.1662 .4729
Accommodation and food services .9651 .5539
Government .7158 .4257
Finance and insurance .2733 .2183
Durable goods manufacturing .5034 .1746
Other services .3998 .1443
Wholesale trade .1662 .1468
Transportation, warehousing, and utilities .3823 .1598
Information .1586 .1043
Construction .8076 .1250
Nondurable goods manufacturing .3262 .1081
Educational services .2265 .0758
Real estate and rental and leasing .1212 .0519
Arts, entertainment, and recreation .2258 .0738
Mining and logging .0558 .0274

 

Note: Because the data are not seasonally adjusted, these are 12-month averages, September 2013–August 2014.

Source: EPI analysis of data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and the Current Population Survey

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