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The Real Reason Your Paycheck Is Not Good Enough

Man handing woman US dollar banknotes, close-upMan handing woman US dollar banknotes, close-up

Rick Wartzman is senior advisor to the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University.

When politicians talk up their economic plans, they never promise just to generate jobs. They invariably speak of creating “good” jobs—a necessary modifier given that most Americans haven’t gotten a meaningful pay raise over the past three or four decades.

What accounts for such stagnation? Economists and other experts have offered all sorts of explanations: the impact of technology and globalization; the weakening of organized labor; an erosion in the value of the federal minimum wage; endless rounds of corporate restructuring; and an inordinate focus on handing gains to shareholders instead of employees.

Yet Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, puts his finger on another cause that is often overlooked: a lack of robust employment itself.

In fact, Bernstein maintains that a persistent absence of “full employment”—the point at which all eligible people who want a job can find one—may well be the most important reason that paychecks have been stuck in neutral for so long.

At a time when many companies can tap cheap labor all over the world and unions don’t have much clout, “full employment is one of the only ways many middle- and low-wage workers muster bargaining power,” explains Bernstein, who served as chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and was the executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class.

Bernstein has been making this argument for some time, including in his books Getting Back to Full Employment and The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity. But he puts together a particularly compelling case in a new paper, which he is set to deliver on Friday at a conference at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California at Berkeley.

In it, he notes that from 1949 through 1979, when the typical worker was enjoying healthy increases in compensation (climbing about 90% over that span), the United States was at full employment more than 70% of the time. Since 1980, however, the nation has achieved such a state less than 30% of the time—and the typical worker’s wages and benefits have gone up a mere 10% or so during that period.

The connection, Bernstein says in his paper, is clear: “Only in tight job markets must employers bid up compensation to get and keep the workers they need.” Full employment, he adds, “plays a similar role to unions or other labor policies that create pressures for firms to more equitably share profits.”

Full employment also helps to lift the number of weeks worked per year and hours worked per week—factors that are especially significant for struggling low-income households.

Bernstein points out that the only time in the past 35 years that U.S. workers saw a substantial jump in their pay was during the Clinton boom, when the unemployment rate fell to 4% in 2000.

Today, unemployment has slowly slowed drifted down to 4.9% from a high of 10% in the aftermath of the Great Recession—just a hair over the Congressional Budget Office’s “full employment” target of 4.8%. And, right on cue, wages finally look like they’re starting to perk up, having improved 2.6% over the past 12 months, compared with 2.2% a year earlier.

Still, Bernstein believes that there is plenty of room to go without any danger of sparking inflation. Annual wage growth of “three to five percent would be a good place to be for a while,” he told me.

To get there will require, in Bernstein’s words, “mopping up the remaining slack in the job market.” This means reducing the ranks of the 6 million part-timers who wish they were working full-time, and finding jobs for the roughly 2 million folks who’ve dropped out of the labor force because they’re discouraged but could—and should—be pulled back in.

It also means figuring out, if full employment is reached, how to stay there.

Bernstein has some ideas. First, he says, he’d put people to work through a big government infrastructure program, building and repairing roads, bridges, railways, airports, and the like. Both presidential candidates say they’re in favor of this New Deal-era balm.

Second, he’d make sure there is adequate oversight of Wall Street so as to protect jobs from being vaporized. “Every time we get close to full employment,” Bernstein says, “a bubble implodes and throws us into a recession.”

Third, he’d aim to more seamlessly reintegrate into the workforce those with criminal records. And fourth, he’d give special attention to residents of “job deserts”—depressed urban and rural areas with stubbornly high unemployment rates. “We need a permanent fund, not just during recessions, that helps people with training and subsidized employment,” Bernstein says.

In the end, such efforts will assist not only the least advantaged among us, but everyone hoping to get ahead. After all, one of the best ways for more people to have “good” jobs is for more people to have jobs, period.