Media gets Trump tax cut and hails economy as robust, ignoring millions of Americans

National unemployment rate does not account for the growing number of Americans abandoning the workforce

By Robert Hennelly

Published June 4, 2018 1:30PM (EDT)

 (AP/Getty/Salon)
(AP/Getty/Salon)

All over the news, we are being bombarded by the “great news” that the national unemployment rate has dropped to 3.8 percent, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report.

This solitary data point is being used by the corporate news media to spin the narrative that President Trump’s massive corporate tax cut is working its magic and restoring the nation to dynamic economic growth which is "raising all our boats."

And yet, in the very same government report, there are several other data points that just get ignored, because they don’t fit the corporatist-news narrative that capitalism works for all Americans and that — post-Great-Recession — we have been on this ‘unprecedented’ expansion winning-streak month-after-month.

What is not mentioned, is the perverse reality that a big chunk of the decline in the much-heralded unemployment rate over the last two months was the consequence of people leaving the workforce.

“In April, the unemployment rate dropped below 4.0 percent for the first time since 2000, but for the 'wrong' reasons — because people left the labor force, not because they found work,” wrote researchers at the Economic Policy Institute. “Meanwhile, in May, more people found jobs at the same time that the labor force participation rate ticked down slightly. About two-thirds of the drop in the unemployment rate in May was because workers found jobs, while about one-third of the drop was from people leaving the labor force.”

The same BLS May survey found that “both the labor force participation rate, at 62.7 percent, and the employment-population ratio, at 60.4 percent, changed little in May.”

Remember, it was Candidate Donald Trump who — when he was running against President Obama’s economy — hammered home the concept that the top-line unemployment number, which he now hails as proof of his own success, was largely irrelevant as a barometer of the economic experience of the vast swath of Americans.

Rather, it was Candidate Trump who insisted the relevant statistic was the labor force participation rate, which is a metric that measures actual engagement in the job market.

When President Obama came into office in 2009, the labor force participation rate was 65.7 percent. By the time he left in January 2017, it was 62.9 percent. In May 2018, more than a year and a half later, that number is down to 62.7 percent, which means a higher percentage of Americans are not part of the labor force than when Trump took the oath of office.

There are nearly 100 million Americans not in the workforce; among those people there are:

  • 44.5 million retirees
  • 14.5 million in school
  • 12.8 million caring for a loved one
  • 15.3 million not working because they are sick or disabled

And, of course, 2.3 million of them are incarcerated Americans.

Throughout the so-called Obama recovery, experts noted that corporations had figured out ways to outsource, automate, or reduce to part-time, once full-time positions; and that these jobs were not coming back. There is ample evidence that this continues to be an issue, according to the latest BLS data.

“The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) was essentially unchanged at 4.9 million in May,” BLS reports.  “These individuals, who would have preferred full-time employment, were working part time because their hours had been reduced or they were unable to find full-time jobs.”

And, as for our fellow Americans that are “marginally attached to the labor force,” BLS found in May 2018, there were still “1.5 million . . . little different from a year earlier . . . These individuals not in the labor force, wanted and were available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. They were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.”

Perhaps most importantly under Donald Trump, when it comes to the average work-week for employees, this country is very much still a part-time nation, “with private non-farm payrolls unchanged at 34.5 hours in May,” according to BLS. “In manufacturing, the work-week decreased by 0.2 hour to 40.8 hours, and overtime edged down by 0.2 hour to 3.5 hours. The average work-week for production and nonsupervisory employees on private non-farm payrolls remained at 33.8 hours.”

But nowhere is there a greater disconnect between the corporate news media's reporting on the economy and the reality of working class Americans than in the way the tiny bumps in wages that are reported by the BLS are hyped as more evidence of the Trump tonic.

“In May, average hourly earnings for all employees on private non-farm payrolls rose by 8 cents to $26.92,” BLS reported. "Over the year, average hourly earnings have increased by 71 cents, or 2.7 percent. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by 7 cents to $22.59 in May.”

Meanwhile, in the real world, where Trump’s reckless tossing of the Iranian Nuclear deal has sent gasoline prices soaring by a dollar a gallon, working-class Americans continue to lose ground — as they have consistently for the last 50 years, no matter which party was in power. 

In the Economic Policy Institute's comprehensive analysis of the reality of poverty in America, on the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, the non-profit found that, among adults 18 to 64 years old, poverty rose from 9.0 percent in 1968 to 11.6 percent in 2016.

EPI notes that 63 percent of this cohort is “working and 45.5 percent are working full time;” and that their data makes “it clear that millions of people who are active participants in the labor market are unable to make ends meet, either due to insufficient hours or low wages.”

There is a major roadblock in the path to a radical and essential transformation that this country needs that rewards work, rather than only rewarding capital speculation and market manipulation. Corporate media convinces the folks who are struggling most that they are isolated losers in a system that is fair, since everyone else is enjoying a new car and a luxury vacation every year.

The tens of millions of American families who struggle every week to feed and shelter themselves are just not depicted so they must not exist.

It was sixteen years ago that Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky published their seminal book, "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media."

In their book, they rightly observe that the corporate media is very much a big business that — as the book’s publishing company blurb summarizes — “defends the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate domestic society, the state, and the global order.”

Why, there’s no reason to revolt and up-end late-stage vulture capitalism, since we are the economic engine for the world and everyone is prospering as a result. After decades of hearing stock quotes at the top and bottom of the news hour with the weather, we cannot help but feel like everyone around us must be Mr. Monopoly, even though just 10 percent of America’s wealthiest households own 84 percent of the stocks in this country.

American Dream, indeed.

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Robert Hennelly

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