There are few points on which Democrats and Republicans running for president can agree, but one of them may be that the recovery from the Great Recession is incomplete. Adding jobs is always a mantra for presidential candidates, but for this election, the focus has also turned to wages.
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has broadly supported raising the minimum wage and pushing for equal pay for women doing similar jobs as men. Her rivalk, Bernie Sanders, has called for a $15 an hour national minimum wage. Current Republican establishment favorite Marco Rubio has called for more training for higher-paying jobs that don't require a college degree. (Often the contrarian, frontrunner Donald Trump has been telling crowds of supporters that wages are "too high.")
Recent debates between the candidates have been dominated by questions of national security, terrorism and the fallout of the Syrian civil war. But at some point it's likely that questions of jobs, wages and the issues raised by the debate over the importance of income inequality will take center stage.
And when it does, these charts from the Economic Policy Institute should serve as conversation starters.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the percentage of employed 25- to 54-year-olds fell 5.6% from its peak just before the Great Recession to its trough shortly following the economic crisis of late-2008. Since then, about half of those jobs have returned.
While recent headlines have touted the decline in unemployment to just over 5% from more than 10% some seven years ago, such a top-line number masks stagnating or falling wages, in addition to the hundreds of people who have all but dropped out of the workforce.
"We're further from a full recovery than you might get from the fact that the Fed has started to raise interest rates," Josh Bivens, Washington-based EPI's director of research and policy, said in a phone interview. "The drop to 5% is misleading, in that it overstates some of the progress we've made."
In other words, jobs are important, but wages are critical to sustaining a middle-class. Even as workers continue to look for jobs, wage growth, or the lack thereof, warrants closer analysis.
From 1973 to 2014, hourly pay as defined by wages and benefits, increased 9.2%, after adjusting for inflation, yet net productivity (production per hour of the whole economy) rose by 72.2%, according to data compiled by the EPI. Even as U.S. workers became more productive, the product of their labor went to upper-level managers and executives, and corporate profits, rather than to the wages of middle and lower-income workers.
That's a striking departure from the 25 years prior to the mid-1970s when typical worker pay rose at the same pace as productivity, according to the EPI.
The years since the onset of the Great Recession has accelerated many of the trends such as the divergence of executive-pay versus average worker pay since the mid-1970s, Bivens says. Stagnating wage growth has been felt not just by low-income and minimum wage workers, but middle-income private sector employees as well.
Taken together, nominal wages have increased 2% to 2.5% since 2007, lagging a typically healthy economy of 3.5%, consistent with the Fed's goal of 2% inflation combined with 1.5% productivity. This expanding gap has led to calls from activists, labor unions and at least one presidential candidate, the the Vermont Senator Sanders, to raise the federal minimum wage in stages over the coming years to $15 an hour from its current $7.25 an hour.
"$15 sounds upper ambitious to a lot of people," Bivens said. "But that's only because middle-wage workers have done so badly over the past 30 years as well. We need not just push up the floor, but to come up with some strategies to pick up wage growth to middle wage workers as well."
For the presidential candidates, these trends represent ways to connect with voters frustrated by the recovery. Democrats are making the case that the recovery is on a reasonably good path, but could be stronger, while Republicans are mostly countering that the recovery has been badly mismanaged.
"There's widespread agreement that we're not at full recovery yet, and that hourly wages for most workers have been pretty terrible for a long time," Bivens said. "Anyone who says that pay has been great would be laughed off the stage. The rub is what are you going to do about it? And that's where there's huge divergence."