Heartland’s Struggling Economy Shows That the U.S. Needs More Good Jobs

One of President Donald Trump’s favorite hobbies in the White House is issuing statements hyping job creation, often following the monthly employment report. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is at seven-year lows, falling to 4.4 percent in June. However, Americans across the country haven’t seen the wage increases one would expect with an economic recovery.

Recent research from the Center for American Progress shows that not only has the extent of the recovery since the Great Recession varied enormously by region, but some places were already struggling well before 2007.

Rust Belt and Great Plains states had the lowest relative increase in inflation-adjusted wages of any region in the country between 2000 and 2016. In fact, median wages for Midwestern men decreased from 2000 to 2007. Workers’ ongoing economic struggles are evident through the prime-age employment rate — the share of adults between the ages of 25 and 54 with a full or part-time job.

Regionally, employment rates fell for each part of the country between 2000 and 2016, but the vast majority of the decrease in the Midwest happened prior to the Great Recession, unlike the East, South and West. The Midwest has struggled to replace 1.5 million manufacturing jobs lost since 2000 as the creation of new service sector jobs has not kept up. Traditionally, the manufacturing sector had long been associated with jobs that pay middle-class wages regardless of workers’ education levels. This difference, known as the manufacturing wage premium, was historically the largest in the Midwest but has fallen more drastically there than any other region.

The Midwest’s decline occurred several years before any signs of the Great Recession, without recovering any faster or at any greater magnitude than the rest of the country. This “Midwest Great Pre-cession” has come to define the region’s changing and struggling economy where work is generally available, yet good jobs that pay middle class wages have become increasingly scarce.

A Midwest worker who has spent the better part of two decades feeling the effects of stagnant wages and precarious job security or prolonged unemployment might support a candidate who railed against bad trade deals, called out a rigged system, and faulted lobbyists and Washington insiders.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump told Midwest cities and towns that he would fix an economy driven into the ground by people who didn’t have workers’ best interests in mind. But Barack Obama preached many of these same outsider economic themes in 2008. To be clear, the two candidates had distinct attitudes on race, religion and immigration, and the role of identity in determining the 2016 outcome cannot be emphasized enough.

The 2008 and 2016 similarities seemed to help switch a non-insignificant share of votes of people who heard a resonant message. According to estimates by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, 9 percent of voters who cast a ballot for Obama in 2012 switched to Trump in 2016, totaling more than 6 million people nationally. Many of the 209 counties that Obama won twice and later flipped to Trump are located in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio — all newly red states.

Of course, regardless of political party, even the most compelling campaign rhetoric does not create a single job. That reality has not appeared to have dawned on the White House as the Trump administration has yet to take any action that would have any meaningful benefit for workers.

Instead, the typical American is far more likely to be hurt by Trump. He has used executive orders to weaken apprenticeship program quality requirements and end oversight so federal contractors follow labor and civil rights laws. The president’s budget proposes cutting job training and employment initiatives, eliminating economic development programs often targeted toward rural areas, undoing post-financial crisis consumer protections, slashing Medicaid and ending Meals on Wheels — all while gifting the richest Americans enormous tax cuts.

There is no secret recipe to creating good jobs, but it surely does not involve less investment in workers and decreased support for the businesses that hire them. Overtime protections and increased bargaining power through unions help ensure workers get a fair share of the profits. Paid family leave and affordable childcare provide workplace flexibility. Access to capital, entrepreneurial training, and modern infrastructure such as reliable transportation and broadband are all ingredients that help businesses start and thrive.

If the president has any interest in looking out for the interests of the American worker, he should show concern in improving employment rates and increasing wages through more quality jobs. If he sticks to simple platitudes and harmful policies, he’ll have plenty more reasons to be concerned about his own job.

Andrew Schwartz is an economic policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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