What to Watch on Jobs Day: Policymakers can’t claim credit for the continuation of a trend
Tomorrow’s jobs report is notable, because it will cover the first full month that President Trump has been in office. While the president has recently claimed that he inherited a “mess” of an economy, the fact is that the economy has been recovering slowly but steadily, and I expect the February jobs numbers to reflect that. The unemployment rate has been ticking down, the prime-age employment-to-population ratio has been improving, and wages grew across the board in 2016.
To be clear, there is still room for improvement. While we are on the road to full employment, we are not there yet. But the economy is on track and there are no obvious signs of any underlying weakness that would lead to a recession. It’s important to keep this steady improvement in mind as we assess economic progress moving forward. No policymaker should be allowed to claim credit for improvements that are simply a continuation of a trend. Conversely, failure to deliver still lower unemployment in the coming years should be seen as a policy mistake—either by the Federal Reserve or by fiscal policymakers.
The average unemployment rate over the last three months was 4.7 percent, a fall of 0.3 percentage points from the average rate from the same three months last year (5.0 percent). At that rate, the unemployment rate will hit 4.0 percent sometime in 2019. This is not an unrealistic aspiration. The U.S. economy sat at roughly 4.0 percent for two solid years in 1999 and 2000, and policymakers should be aiming for that level today. Only when the labor market is tight enough to deliver sustained rising wages for all workers—regardless of gender, race, or educational attainment—should we say our work is done. Simply put, we want an economy where worker wages are rising, and in order to get there employers need to be competing for workers rather than workers competing for jobs.