Bloomberg reports what seems to be good news. John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve's San Francisco bank, says that the job market is doing so well that the central bank might need to raise interest rates. The article cites lower unemployment rates as the reason for the Williams' statement. Unemployment has declined greatly from its peak during the Great Recession. Even so, many Americans who are counted as employed are only working part-time. Many more are working full-time, but doing so at a low wage. Even workers who make middle class incomes are struggling because they have only received minimal raises over the past 5-8 years.
It’s great to be optimistic, and the Fed should be concerned with inflation. However, most Americans do not feel secure in their jobs and incomes. According to the Consumer Confidence Index of the Conference Board, Americans are not enthusiastic about the current economy. Almost as many people (11.1%) expect their incomes to decline as the small number (17.4). These metrics also show that most American are treading water, not what should be expected in an expanding economy. Politicians and the Fed need to address that concern and not simply focus on the unemployment rate. There will only be a real recovery when Americans feel financially secure.
Aljazeera America’s Inside Story Team analyzed the recent “good news” about job growth in the U.S. The numbers are positive, but there are still big problems. Many of the new jobs are in low wage sectors, such as service and retail. Is Aljazeera just being a buzz kill, looking for bad news? Not at all. Job growth over the past few years has been highest for lower wage workers. Just as bad, many middle class Americans have seen low or no raises from year to year. I’ve had several clients whose bosses have told them some version of “be happy you have a job.” Until wages go up for the lower and middle class, the American economy will struggle. Worse still, millions of working Americans will live with a constant dread of insecurity and a feeling that they are never getting ahead. The news about unemployment is good, but for many it does not address the real problem: America needs a raise.
[On Sundays this blog explores life and work in “Sabbath.”]
One City – Three Americas
About a week ago I took my first trip to Las Vegas. Friends said it would be like nothing I had seen before, and they were right.
The strip, especially at night, is Disneyland for adults. People flow from casino to casino. Some are going to shows, and some are going to restaurants. The heart of the city, however, beats with the slot machines and gaming tables. This aspect of Las Vegas reflects post-Reagan America, a country that welcomes risks and says losers be damned. We know the house wins, but we play the game anyway. The person playing next to you is not your problem. Win or lose – you are alone.
My friends and I visited another aspect of the country when we went to Hoover Dam. We took a tour of the facility, which was interesting in several ways. The Dam is an engineering wonder, which was completed during the Great Depression. It represents the opposite of the strip: control, security, and shared resources. The water that the Dam holds in Lake Mead is not only used by Las Vegas. Its primary function is irrigation for farms in Southern California that are essential to the nation’s food supply. Before the Dam was built, the Colorado River would often flood and ruin crops. For me the Dam represents a country that builds for the future, a shared future.
We also took a tour to see the Grand Canyon. This version of America puts everything in perspective: man is small and pitiful in the face of nature. We can build skyscrapers and rockets that go to the moon. We could never do what nature has done in carving this wonder. This is the America that is too often being lost to our need to build and grow. In Kentucky and West Virginia, smaller wonders have been spoiled in the process called mountain top removal. In Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, we have fouled the oceans with oil spills. Thank god developers have found nothing of value in the Grand Canyon. . . yet.
I came away from Las Vegas with both fear and hope. My fear is that we are becoming a nation of risk takers who care little about our fellow citizens or the future. Gambling, which was once legal only in a few places, is now a national growth industry. Governors and mayors cry poor and look to casinos as alternatives to increased taxes. I see people who are obviously not wealthy buy $10 or $20 of lottery tickets, their hope for the future. This is the America where risk rules and the winners run the game. Still, I also came away from my trip to Las Vegas with some hope. If we can build Hoover Dam during the greatest financial crisis in the country’s history, we can wake up again and work together for the common good. We still have the Grand Canyon to inspire us to protect the planet and its wonders. We still have a chance – if we don’t gamble it away.