NC Budget and Tax Center

Prominent economist connects the dots between underemployment and stagnant wages in NC

While the first storm of winter was heading our way yesterday, prominent economist Jared Bernstein discussed a low pressure system of a different type, how the persistent failure to achieve full employment is pushing wages down and contributing to growing wealth inequality.

Drawing on his work on the importance of full employment, Dr. Bernstein discussed how underemployment is responsible for much of the wage stagnation we have seen in recent decades. Particularly as attacks on organized labor have reduced the power of workers to directly pressure employers for better pay, and with a lack of political will to increase the minimum wage, workers’ only tend to see better pay when employers have to actively compete with each other to attract employees. When the economy isn’t creating enough jobs, and a large pool of unemployed people are desperate to find work, employers are not compelled to increase wages, which is precisely what we have seen in recent years.

Unemployment with Missing WorkersThe problem of underemployment depressing wages is not unique to North Carolina, but it is particularly pressing here in the Tar Heel state. Included in our End of the Year Chartbook for 2015, the two charts included here indicate that the dynamic Dr. Bernstein identified is alarmingly active here in NC. First, if we include all of the “Missing Workers” who were forced out of the labor pool during the recession due to lack of jobs, the real unemployment rate in North Carolina is likely still in the double figures. With so many people still looking for work, employers in many industries are not raising wages, which means that workers are receiving less of the value they create.NC Workers Receiving Less of the Value they Create

Dr. Bernstein argued that we don’t have to accept this state of affairs. There are policy responses that could get us closer to full employment and deliver wage growth, but a lack of political will at both the state and federal levels is preventing those remedies from being administered. So long as state leaders pursue tax cuts instead of raising the minimum wage, expanding educational and workforce investments, and wage supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit, Dr. Bernstein worries that we will continue to see inflated unemployment and wage stagnation and miss the critical opportunity to make the economy work for more people.

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