The Economy’s Inequality Dividend
The Editorial Board
Wall Street Journal
January 10, 2020
The December employment report on Friday was a modest disappointment with fewer new jobs and slowing wage gains. But the report is an exception to other strong recent labor data, and the big picture is that the longest hiring expansion in 80 years is lifting lower-income workers in particular as accumulating evidence shows.
The jobless rate remained steady at 3.5% as labor participation held at its recent high of 63.2%. The 145,000 new jobs are fewer than the 184,000 average monthly gains over the last three months and the 165,000 average over the past year. Most of the slowdown appears to be trade-related and reflects lower business investment.
Wage growth for production-level workers slowed with average hourly wages up 3% over the last year compared to 3.4% in November. Some of this may be monthly statistical noise, and the trend in the last two years has been higher wage growth among lower earners. That’s a contrast to the early years of this expansion when real wages were flat.
The Federal Reserve’s interventions inflated asset values, which helped the affluent but did little for low- and middle-income Americans who don’t own stocks. Enter Donald Trump, whose deregulation and tax reform unleashed a surge of business investment (before his tariff spree) and hiring, which has drawn workers off the sidelines and raised wages.
The comparative data are striking, and mostly ignored by the press. During the first 11 quarters of the Trump Presidency, wages for the bottom 10% of earners over age 25 rose an average 5.9% annually compared to 2.4% during Barack Obama’s second term, according to the latest demographic data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wages for the middle two quartiles increased 3.2% compared to 2.2% and 2.7% between 2012 and 2016. Wage gains for the top 10% have held steady at about 3%.
Less educated workers have also seen the strongest gains. Wages have risen at a 6.1% annual clip for workers over 25 without a high school degree and 3.9% for those with some college—both about three times faster than during the second Obama term. Wage gains have also accelerated though to a lesser degree—to 3.2% from 2.2%—for college grads.