Last year, an alarming report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that the gap in income between black and white Americans had grown from 1979 to 2015, with black men earning 22.0 percent less, and black women making 34.2 percent less, than white men with the same education, experience, and geographical location. A new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco confirms that finding, showing that the black-white wage gap has been growing and furthermore, that economic factors do not explain why.
The hourly wage ratio of the average black male to his white male counterpart shrank from 80 percent in 1979 to 70 percent in 2016, the San Francisco Fed finds. Black women earned 95 percent of what white women made in 1979, but that has gone down to 82 percent in 2016. While some of the gap can be explained by attributes such as location, education, working hours, job type, etc., the reason for its growth is less tied to those factors and economists are struggling to explain the increase. The Fed says this “implies that factors that are harder to measure—such as discrimination, differences in school quality, or differences in career opportunities—are likely to be playing a role in the persistence and widening of these gaps over time.” Eshe Nelson at Quartz adds:
In fact, additional research by the San Francisco Fed showed that black people with bachelor’s degrees saw the earnings gap with their white counterparts increase by more than for high-school graduates. … Ultimately, it seems that discrimination—whether in the “unexplained” category, or more structural racial bias that exists in educational systems and elsewhere—is widening the disparity in wages between black and white workers. Time alone will not close this gap, researchers conclude. … time seems to be making it worse.
One factor that may also account for the recent rise is that black workers are hit harder by recessions and recover more slowly than the rest of the labor market. It’s very likely that the cumulative effect of the recessions of 1987 and the late 2000s reversed, or even worsened, any progress made from the late 1960s to the early 80s. Bloomberg’s Jeanna Smialek and Jordyn Holman idenfity why this is such a problem:
As the advent of the gig economy has highlighted the precarious nature of many non-salaried workers’ incomes, predictable scheduling has practically eclipsed the minimum wage as the labor rights cause of the day, both in the US and in other countries. In the past year, we’ve seen cities like Seattle and New York pass “secure scheduling” laws mandating guaranteed hours for certain classes of hourly employees, and Oregon is on its way to becoming the first state with such legislation.
That many Americans work unpredictable hours from week to week is not in dispute, but opponents of these mandates argue that they impose unreasonable burdens on employers in industries like retail and food service where turnover is high and demand is naturally unpredictable. There is also some debate over just how big a problem variable scheduling is. A recent Gallup survey, for example, finds that among the one in six US employees who are paid hourly and say their hours vary each week, 67 percent say their variable schedules are not causing them financial hardship:
These results are based on interviews conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 4 with 528 hourly workers who say the number of hours they work each week varies. Thirty-seven percent of all hourly workers — equivalent to 18% of all U.S. workers — say the number of hours they work varies from week to week, while the rest say their hours are fixed.
Dennis Yip/Flickr/Public Domain
In a paper last year on the disappearance of many prime-age men from the US workforce, Princeton economist Alan Krueger presented the unsettling finding that 44 percent of working-age men who were not in the labor force reported taking pain medication on a regular basis, and two-thirds of these men were taking prescription pain medication. While improvements in video game technology may be contributing to these men’s lower workforce participation by making long-term unemployment more bearable, Krueger wrote, their high rates of poor health and use of narcotic painkillers are much more disconcerting.
In the Fall 2017 edition of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Krueger publishes an update of that research with new data, homing in on the impact of opioid epidemic on the labor market. That impact, he finds, is even more significant than previously thought, accounting for some 20 percent of the decrease in men’s labor force participation between 1999 and 2015, and 25 percent of the decrease among women, Brookings editor Fred Dews explains:
Krueger’s paper suggests that, though much of the decline can be attributed to an aging population and other trends that pre-date the Great Recession (for example, increased school enrollment of younger workers), an increase in opioid prescription rates might also play an important role in the decline, and undoubtedly compounds the problem as many people who are out of the labor force find it difficult to return to work because of reliance on pain medication.
The US labor market continues to grow, but hiring slowed slightly in August, with employers adding 156,000 new jobs and the unemployment rate increasing slightly from 4.3 to 4.4 percent, according to the Labor Department’s monthly jobs report. The Associated Press examines the numbers:
Job growth in June and July was revised down by a combined 41,000, leaving an average monthly gain this year of a solid 176,000. Taken as a whole, Friday’s jobs report pointed to an economy that is still steadily generating jobs, though at a slower pace than it did earlier in the recovery from the recession. With fewer people looking for work, fewer jobs are being filled.
One persistent soft spot in the job market is that pay raises remain tepid. Average hourly pay rose just 2.5 percent over the 12 months that ended in August. Wage growth typically averages 3.5 percent to 4 percent annually when unemployment is this low. … Overall, hiring this year has averaged 176,000 a month, roughly in line with 2016’s average of 187,000. August was the 83rd straight month of job gains.
The report does not account for the economic impact of Hurricane Harvey, which came too late in the month to be reflected in the Labor Department’s surveys. Economists tell the AP the effects of the disaster will likely be visible in the months to come, with job growth first weakening and then rebounding as workers who were temporarily laid off are rehired.
Overall, August’s job numbers undershot economists’ expectations, CNBC’s Jeff Cox reports, but not enough to cause concern:
Although unemployment is low, jobs are plentiful, and by most accounts the US economy is in good health, CareerBuilder’s latest survey of the financial state of the US workforce paints a more troubling picture, finding that 78 percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck at least some of the time—that’s up from 75 percent in last year’s survey. Some of the more detailed findings include:
Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they live paycheck-to-paycheck sometimes, but 17 percent said they usually do and 23 percent said they always do.
- Women are more likely to live paycheck-to-paycheck (81 percent) than men (75 percent).
- One quarter of workers have been unable to make ends meet every month in the last year, and 20 percent said they had missed payment on some of their bills.
- Seventy-one percent said they were in debt, up from 68 percent last year, and more than half of those in debt believe they will never get out of it.
- Thirty-eight percent do not participate in a 401(k) plan, IRA, or other retirement plan, and 26 percent said they had not set aside any savings each month in the last year.
- Most workers (81 percent) had worked a minimum-wage job at some point, and 71 percent of them said they had not been able to make ends meet during that time.
And while low-income workers are relatively more likely to live paycheck-to-paycheck, they are by no means the only ones doing so, CareerBuilder notes—meaning even employers of well-compensated professionals should not ignore the financial wellness concerns of their employees:
In 2016, US labor mobility fell to an all-time low since the Census Bureau began collecting data after World War II. Increased economic uncertainty for lower- and middle-class workers paired with cultural and political polarization have made it tougher for those in distressed, typically rural, regions to accept higher-paying jobs in thriving urban centers, if they can even get them. This has hindered the ability of growing companies in America’s most productive cities to attract talent from outside these urban cores, while also contributing to reduced socioeconomic mobility.
Problems that were previously linked to struggling cities, such as high unemployment and reliance on social services and low-income housing, are now rampant in rural areas. For those who own homes there, local housing markets have failed to recover from the late-2000s crash due to a drop in demand caused by the significant reduction in farming, manufacturing, and other blue-collar jobs. Even if a better opportunity came along somewhere else, selling their property would be tough.
Small-town workers are also put off by the socially liberal attitudes and lack of community in larger cities, so even if they can manage the financial and logistical challenges, the metropolitan culture may be too distant from their own to bear. Eventually, they begin to believe they are stuck. Examining this dilemma at the Wall Street Journal last week, Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg noted that the rate of people in rural America moving across county lines has dropped from 7.7 percent in the 1970s to 4.1 percent in 2015, and this reduction in mobility is having a significant impact on the country as a whole:
Recent surveys of the US workforce show that more Americans are working or planning to work past the conventional retirement age of 65, driven by a mix of increasing life expectancy, a preference for work over retirement, and financial concerns about their ability to retire comfortably. Looking at data from the latest US jobs report, Bloomberg’s Ben Steverman observes that the upward trend in older workers is holding steady, with almost 19 percent of people 65 or older working at least part-time in the second quarter of 2017:
The age group’s employment/population ratio hasn’t been higher in 55 years, before American retirees won better health care and Social Security benefits starting in the late 1960s. … Certainly baby boomers are increasingly ignoring the traditional retirement age of 65. Last quarter, 32 percent of Americans 65 to 69 were employed. Even past age 70, a growing number of seniors are declining to, or unable to, retire. Last quarter, 19 percent of 70- to 74-year-olds were working, up from 11 percent in 1994.
Older Americans are working more even as those under 65 are working less, a trend that the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to continue. By 2024, 36 percent of 65- to 69-year-olds will be active participants in the labor market, the BLS says. That’s up from just 22 percent in 1994.
The trends look strikingly different for men and women, however. While workforce participation is on the rise among older Americans of both genders, Preeti Varathan remarks at Quartz, men over 65 are still working at much lower rates than they were half a century ago, while older women’s participation is reaching record highs: