Commentary

Economist: Persistent unemployment still holding down NC wages

jobseconomyThe McCrory administration keeps peddling the idea of a “Carolina Comeback,” but it sure doesn’t feel like it’s happening on the ground. Maybe that’s because despite the regular announcements from the Governor’s office of business start-ups and expansions (sometimes with as few as 10 or 15 jobs), the state continues to suffer from a toxic combination of massive layoffs like the ones at Freightliner and MillerCoors Brewing and depressed wages for middle class workers.

New analysis from economist Patrick McHugh at the Budget and Tax Center confirms this hard truth:

North Carolina’s economy continues to leave many people looking for work, and even more hoping for a raise. While the national unemployment rate dipped below 5 percent for the first time since the Great Recession, North Carolina’s rate remained unchanged in January, holding at 5.6 percent.

“We keep hearing that robust wage growth is just around the corner but, if that’s true, we might be in a traffic circle.” said Patrick McHugh of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center. “North Carolina’s economy simply isn’t creating enough jobs for everyone that wants to work, and that’s holding down wages for many people who have a job.”

Important trends in the September data also include:

  • North Carolina pay remains below the national average. The average weekly paycheck in North Carolina came in roughly $100 below the national mark in January. While wages in North Carolina have historically been lower than the national average, the gap has expanded substantially in the last few years. Compared to January 2012, when North Carolina weekly wages were roughly $58 below the nation, the gap has widened considerably.
  • Still more North Carolinians out of work than before the Great Recession: There were over 265,000 North Carolinians looking for work in September, approximately 38,500 more than before the Great Recession.
  • Percent of North Carolinians employed still near historic lows, and below the nation: North Carolina remains well below the level of employment that was commonplace before the Great Recession. In the mid-2000’s, employment levels reached a peak of about 63 percent. The percent of North Carolinians with a job remains below the national average, as it has been since the Great Recession

For more context on the economic choices facing North Carolina, check out the Budget & Tax Center’s weekly Prosperity Watch platform.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Focus on wages to ensure the future of work works for all North Carolinians

The Institute for Emerging Issues wrapped up its forum on the future of work yesterday. The forum brings together leaders from across the state each year to discuss issues of importance to the well-being of the state. This year the topic was the future of work– the ways in which automation and technology are changing how we work and the relationship between workers, employers, consumers and communities.

Despite the projections and well-intentioned guesses about what the future will bring, no one knows for sure what the outcome will be.  What we do know is what we do today can support better economic outcomes for more families, businesses and communities in the state.  Research is clear that wage growth and public policy will be key to ensuring that the future of work has the number and quality of jobs that can boost the economy for everyone.

If this sounds familiar, it should. North Carolina’s wage problem is front and center in the daily lives of workers and the communities where they live today.  Without wages that ensure workers can provide for the basics and spend locally, employers struggle to see the demand for goods and services that allow them to expand and communities are challenged to support the opportunities that build the long-term potential for children’s economic success as adults.  North Carolina’s uneven recovery and elevated hardship today are indicators of what happens when policy doesn’t focus on wages or the ways in which all communities can connect to economic opportunity.

On the first day, a panel of policymakers, Senator Chad Barefoot and Speaker Tim Moore, were joined by Rick Glazier with the North Carolina Justice Center and John Hood with the John Locke Foundation to discuss just where policy can ensure that the future of work delivers greater opportunity and shared prosperity.

John Hood highlighted the critical goal of ensuring that workers have the “capital” to meet their needs and make investments that support advancement of themselves, their families and build assets in their community.  This is indeed the goal and a broadly shared one that is the concern of the vast majority of North Carolinians. A workers’ ability to make ends meet and spend is what the economy needs to function well and expand.  That is why a focus on boosting wages and what communities need to do so, not on reducing the size of government, is needed.

The solutions are readily available to North Carolina policymakers today. They are proven ones that will strengthen the economy for the future. To grow wages, North Carolina must: Read more

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.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Resolve to Act in 2016

We have our work cut out for us in 2016. Over the last few days we released a series of charts that capture the key economic stories of the past year. To see the full series of charts, visit the Justice Center’s Facebook page. Given the short and long-term economic challenges we face, public policy choices will determine whether we build an economy that works for everyone.

Your Resolve to Act in 2016 can bring prosperity to more North Carolina homes.  By staying up to date on economic trends, sharing information with your networks and communicating directly with your elected officials, you make sure that the choices are clear in the policy debates that this year will hold.

Resolve to act in 2016 because our economy isn’t creating enough jobs. If we counted all of the people who have left the labor market over the last several years because there are not enough jobs to go around, unemployment in North Carolina is likely still north of 10%. Even those who have been able to find work represent a smaller share of North Carolinians with a job than before the recession started. Unfortunately, economic reality has not yet produced a change of course in Raleigh. Many elected leaders continue to believe that tax cuts will solve our economic ills, in spite of the fact that state’s like California and Massachusetts that focus more on investing than cutting have seen stronger recoveries than North Carolina or our neighbors to the south. Read more

Commentary

NC wages not keeping up with real cost of living

In case you missed it, the latest edition of the Justice Center’s “Prosperity Watch” has some less-than-encourgaing news about the “Carolina Comeback”:

With wages stagnating, the price of many necessities soars

Getting by is getting harder in North Carolina. The cost of some basic necessities are growing faster than wages in North Carolina, catching households that have to spend the bulk of their income on things like food and housing in a tightening vice. When families don’t earn enough to make ends meet, they can’t buy goods and services that provide jobs for other North Carolinians, so the entire economy slows down.

Inflation has been low over the last year or so, with some economists arguing that this should blunt concerns over wage stagnation. From the end of 2007 through July of this year, the cost of all goods and services that the average household purchases increased by 12.6%, while wages increased by almost the same amount. However, as can be seen above, the cost of essential needs like food and shelter has actually outpaced many other types of consumer goods. The price of shelter increased by 14.5% from December 2007 to mid-2015, and the cost of food went up almost 20% during that same period, growth that outpaces wages in both instances.

The practical effect of these trends is that families living in poverty are feeling the squeeze more than the average household. It should come as no surprise that low-income families are forced to spend a larger share of their income on basic necessities than their more prosperous neighbors.

For example, households in the bottom fifth of income spend 16% of their outlays on food, compared to 11% for the top income group. Households at the bottom of the income distribution spend over 40% of their budget on housing, while the top group comes in around 30%. The real world consequence of this is that poorer families have seen the cost of what they have to spend their money on go up much faster than middle of high income families.

High-level economic data can often shield the most economically vulnerable from view, masking the daily challenges that arise when wages don’t keep up with the growing costs of the basics.  Before anyone declares victory in North Carolina, we need to see wage growth that allows working people, and the economy, to make progress.