Although unemployment in America has hovered near multi-decade lows for most of the last year, concerns about job quality rightly persist – largely because wage gains have only recently showed signs of recovering to historically normal levels for a recovery. But the latest official data from the Labor Department demonstrate that the makeup of the country’s employment picture and how it’s changed make clear continued improvement in one key measure: Growing private sector employment increasingly reflects gains in what I’ve called the real private sector, as opposed to the subsidized private sector.
Also apparent from the employment figures: The resurgence of the real private sector in relative terms as well as in absolute terms has been a Trump era phenomenon.
As known by RealityChek regulars, this trend is encouraging because the subsidized private sector consists of parts of the economy that are often (and even officially) viewed as parts of the private sector, but whose health depends largely on government largesse. That is, its total employment and its employment gains would be much smaller without huge government payouts – i.e., politicians’ decisions. The healthcare services industry is the main example.
By contrast, the real private sector consists of parts of the economy whose health flows largely from free market forces. So without getting involved in the debate over whether the United States supports too many subsidized private sector jobs or not, it should be clear that they have little to do with the state and health of the economy as a whole – unlike real private sector jobs.
According to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2013 through 2016, the subsidized private sector’s share of total annual employment increases more than doubled: from 11.34 percent to 25.99 percent. And its share of annual total private sector jobs gains (that is, employment increases by the private sector as conventionally defined), soared from 11.02 percent to 28.59 percent.
During 2017 and 2018 (and the data for late 2018 is still preliminary), the subsidized private sector’s share of total annual U.S. jobs gains dropped to 21.04 percent and then to 19.90 percent. And its share of the growth of total private sector jobs fell to 21.91 percent and then to 20.74 percent.
Another way to look at the Obama-era growth of subsidized private sector employment is to examine its growth as a share of the growth of real private sector jobs. In 2013, this figure stood at 12.38 percent. In 2016? Just over 40 percent. In other words, in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, some four in ten of the net new jobs created in the private sector came in the subsidized private sector – meaning that they were heavily dependent on government largesse.
In 2017 and 2018, subsidized private sector jobs growth as a share of total private sector jobs growth sank all the way to 28.05 percent, and then to 26.16 percent.
Looking at the economy from a static standpoint – i.e., through snapshots taken at crucial dates – illustrates these trends, too, although less dramatically. After all, even major relative changes can take many years to show up as major absolute changes in a supertanker as big as the U.S. economy.
At the outset of the last recession the subsidized private sector represented 13.67 percent of all U.S. jobs and the real private sector’s share was 70.16 percent. And the subsidized private sector’s share of the total (conventionally defined) private sector was 19.49 percent.
By the time the recovery began, in mid-2009, these figures stood at 14.97 percent and 67.80 percent – showing that during an economic downturn that decimated the overall American jobs market, subsidized private sector employment rose not only in relative terms but in absolute terms (from 18.92 million to 19.61 million. Meanwhile, the subsidized private sector’s share of the total private sector employment had risen to 22.07 percent.
By January, 2017 – the final month of the Obama administration and eight and a half years into the recovery – the subsidized private sector comprised 15.75 percent of all American jobs, and the real private sector was back up to 68.94 percent. Subsidized private sector employment had grown to 22.84 percent of total private sector jobs.
By December, 2018 (results that are still preliminary) the subsidized private sector’s share of all American employment had kept increasing – to 15.91 percent. And the real private sector’s share grew modestly, too – to 69.11 percent, as did the subsidized private sector’s share of the total private sector (to 23.02 percent).
Nevertheless, this examination of the changing dimensions of subsidized private sector employment also reveals that the national jobs market still hasn’t returned to pre-recession normality. In particular, even though the current recovery is nearing it’s tenth anniversary, that real private sector share of total employment (69.11 percent) is still below where it stood at the downturn’s onset (70.16 percent).