There's a kind of bipartisan cult of complaint about the allegedly incomplete picture painted each month when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its unemployment and job-creation numbers.
On Friday, the government announced that unemployment had remained at 5 percent, meaning 7.9 million Americans were looking for work in November but were unable to find it. And almost certainly, when the dust around other political issues settles, voters can expect that the high priests of the claim that this figure represents an intentional and misleading understatement -- Bernie Sanders on the Democratic presidential primary and Donald Trump in the Republican one -- will return to this claim again. And when they do, here's a new talking point you might hear about.
There are about 17 million "job-seekers" in the United States, according to a report released this week by the Alliance for a Just Society, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking what workers need to earn to support themselves and how many of these jobs have been available for the last 15 years.
To be clear, that figure includes the nearly 8 million Americans who meet the government's official criteria for being "unemployed" and another almost 9 million people who are "underemployed (involuntary part-time workers), workers marginally attached to the labor force, and discouraged workers who would want a job if one was available."
One disclaimer here before we dig into the report's findings: The alliance's work began long before such labor and workers' rights groups rallied around the so-called "Fight for $15" cause seeking a $15 minimum wage. And the group does not currently receive union funding. But, Jill Reese, the alliances' associate director, told me that the organization does agree with the Fight for $15's goals. The Fight for $15 has, among other activities, organized unofficial strikes and protests by fast-food workers in cities around the country. So this is not from a neutral party.
Here's the really troubling news from the alliance report: There might be 17 million Americans in need of work or better-paying work, but there were only about 5 million job openings in the United states in October, according to the report. And of these, only about 2.7 million of them offered wages that amount to $15 or more.
That is critical, according to the researchers behind the report, because $15 an hour is about what a single adult needs to earn in most of the United States in order to support themselves and meet all of their own basic needs without public assistance. (Click on the two tables below to enlarge it and view the wages the report's authors found are needed to sustain oneself in your state.)
In short, this is what a person needs to earn in order for work itself to make complete sense for both the individual and the collective society. And if all that is not grim or ostensibly real enough for you, there's this from the report:
Occupational projections show that this is a trend unlikely to change in the near future. Nationally, four of the top five fastest growing occupations – those occupations with the most job openings – pay less than $15 per hour. This finding suggests that our economy is not growing in a way that is delivering returns to workers.
This pattern, according to the study's authors, is pushing more and more Americans to dependence on the shrinking social safety net -- or to try to cobble together a living with more than one part-time job. The report does not specify how many Americans are working multiple jobs but did find that women and workers of color are more likely than others to rank among the low-paid and those who work part-time but would prefer full-time hours if they could find such a job.
Now, Sanders has pretty much centered his entire campaign around issues of economic inequality and injustice. So, it won't be at all surprising to hear Sanders make some mention of the report's findings in coming weeks. But Trump, despite what's known about the mostly working-class and white demographic profile of his political base, has said that he would not support measures that aim to boost the minimum wage or somehow universally elevate pay. Trump said during the most recent Republican presidential debate that low wages are a key to keeping the country competitive in the global economy.
Just a little something to consider the next time someone mentions Obama's "fake" unemployment rate.