America’s official unemployment rate now stands at 3.9 percent, which has been cause for much crowing by President Donald Trump. New data, however, belie Trump’s triumphalism on the economy and find that many ordinary Americans are far from confident about their personal economic circumstances.
A new survey by Prudential and Morning Consult finds that just 46 percent of Americans are “hopeful” about their financial security, while 48 percent are “worried” or “very worried.” One in four say they’re saving less for retirement because of their current finances, 27 percent say they’ve taken a second job, and 34 percent say they’ve looked for a new job in an effort to increase their pay.
Fears about retirement security in fact loomed large in this survey, with 72 percent of workers saying they were concerned about their retirement and 80 percent ranking it as the top issue they’d like to see Congress tackle. According to the poll, the principal reasons workers gave for having trouble saving were “daily expenses” (29 percent), housing costs (18 percent), elder care (17 percent) and health care (13 percent).
Why so much anxiety despite nothing but positive toplines on the economy?
One reason is wage stagnation. While corporate profits might be reaching record highs, wage growth has been sluggish. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real average weekly earnings in April were just 0.4 percent higher than they were a year ago. Meanwhile, household expenses have been rising at a much faster pace. Average annual premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance, for instance, have risen 19 percent since 2012 and 55 percent since 55 percent since 2007, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
A second reason for Americans’ persistent economic anxieties is escalating levels of debt. This week, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released new data showing an increase in household debt for the 15thconsecutive quarter. As of March 31, U.S. households owed $13.2 trillion, up $63 billion from the fourth quarter of 2017. Student loans were the largest source of debt behind mortgages, outstripping auto loans and credit cards to total $1.41 trillion in the first quarter of 2018.
A third source of household anxiety is growing job insecurity, as mounting numbers of workers enter the “contingent” or “gig” economy. While the precise size of this new economy is under dispute, the Prudential-Morning Consultsurvey found that 27 percent of workers – including 35 percent of millennials – characterized themselves as gig workers and that 30 percent of respondents said someone in their immediate family worked a gig job. Despite their claimed benefits of flexibility and independence, gig work is also seen as insecure – 64 percent of Americans said gig jobs “fail to provide necessary worker benefits.”
Americans’ worries about their finances should also add to the worries of the GOP, which is already highly vulnerable this fall. The President’s much-touted tax cuts have done little to help average families, who might be starting to see the extent to which they’ve been hoodwinked by Trump and GOP promises. Surveys show, for instance, that voters are beginning to pin higher health care costs on Republican recalcitrance over Obamacare – one late 2017 survey found that 50 percent of Americans would blame Trump and Republicans if costs increase and people lose coverage, versus 37 percent who would blame Democrats and former President Barack Obama.
Progressives, on the other hand, now have a chance to point out the failures of Trump’s economic plan and offer their own prescriptions for change. At the top of that list should be strategies to help Americans earn their way to greater financial security through better jobs, higher wages and greater opportunities for advancement. One promising blueprint is the economic opportunity agenda released this week by the House New Democrat Coalition, which offers a smorgasbord of creative ideas for improving workers’ skills and ensuring they are well-equipped to thrive in a changing economy. Among other things, the Coalition calls for an overhaul of higher education so that students not only emerge from school with immediately marketable skills but have a chance to upgrade themselves throughout their working lives.
By embracing a forward-thinking agenda that gives Americans a clear path forward and upward, progressives can shift the political winds in their favor and help to defeat the underlying forces that propelled the rise of Trumpism and its destructive policies.