If you, like former President Harry Truman, are sick of two-handed economic analysis (“on the one hand, one the other….”), then you’re really not going to like the latest government data on Americans’ wages adjusted for inflation. For they continue the pattern of an economic recovery that keeps giving and taking away and giving…and so forth.
The good news is that real wages for the entire private sector are no longer in recession – that is, they now haven’t been down on net for two consecutive quarters. Most of the credit goes to the March increase reported this morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The 0.47 percent monthly gain (which is still preliminary) over February’s level (also still preliminary) was the biggest since January, 2015’s 1.05 percent.
Nonetheless (yes, cue that other hand!), U.S. real wages have still been flat since last July. Moreover, the March year-on-year change (+0.28 percent) is much smaller than the improvement between the previous two Marches (1.52 percent).
The picture gets no prettier when the focus turns to manufacturing. Its March monthly price-adjusted wage gain (preliminary, just as with overall private sector wages) was strong as well, with the 0.37 percent advance the best since last October’s 0.46 percent. (The still-preliminary February decline of 0.09 percent stayed unrevised, too.) But that boost wasn’t enough to end a recession on this front stretching back to last April.
Year-on-year, after-inflation manufacturing wage gains have slowed down considerably as well. The latest figure is 0.19 percent, compared with the March, 2015-March, 2016 increase of 1.50 percent.
Not surprisingly, the bottom line remains pretty grim: Adjusting for inflation, American workers in the private sector as a whole, and especially in manufacturing, have seen their hourly paychecks rise only minimally since the current economic recovery began – nearly nine years ago. For the private sector, the increase has been only 3.97 percent. For manufacturing, it’s been a paltry 0.93 percent.
Of course, however ambiguous these real wage data look economically, the political message they’re sending looks clear enough: If Americans’ wage gains don’t start speeding up significantly, they’ll undercut the fortunes of President Trump and the Republican Congress as surely as they kneecapped their Democratic counterparts just last November.