America is enjoying a stretch of stellar jobs reports, including Friday's announcement that the economy added 292,000 jobs in December. Job growth averaged 221,000 a month for 2015. The Obama administration trumpets the news that the last two years have seen more jobs created than any similar stretch since the late 1990s. There's much to celebrate in those numbers -- whether you compare them to the depths of the recession or the much weaker earlier years of the recovery, or even to most of the rest of the world right now.
Even for people who worry chronically about the American economy, there's good reason to be cheerful today. And yet - you had to guess there was a yet - there are still real concerns with the economy, in the short and long term.
A quick review of some of the positives, in chart form.
1) A lot of jobs are being created:
2) Consumers are feeling better:
3) Economic uncertainty, which conservatives have long warned was squashing the recovery, has fallen:
4) And of course, unemployment is at 5 percent, a steep drop from the recession.
Now here come the caveats -- the reasons why large slices of America still worry about the recovery.
A) We still have ground to make up from the Great Recession. The Hamilton Project at Brookings calculates what it calls a "jobs gap," which is the number of jobs still needed to regain what was lost during the recession, plus the new people who have entered the potential labor force since then. That gap has shrunk dramatically in the last few years, but it's still at 2.5 million jobs.
B) Growth is still slow. There's no way around this: The U.S. economy still isn't expanding as fast as it has in previous recoveries. Faster growth would likely bring even more jobs, and it might ease fears that another recession could be looming around the corner.
C) Wages are growing, but relatively slowly, which means a lot of Americans are still waiting for that raise they've been waiting on ... for a long time. Check out this tracker from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, which shows median wage growth over time. The most recent numbers are improving, but the longer-term trend is a step-change in the wrong direction:
D) A lot of people still feel left behind.
This true in absolute terms and in relative ones. Let's start with relative: Many Americans recognize the progress the economy has made but remember how much faster that progress came in previous recoveries in the 1980s and 90s. (The 2000s, not so much.) They have high expectations, and they still see this recovery falling short of them.
That's true in growth and in wages, and it is also true, to a lesser degree, in jobs. Here's the job-creation chart again, but in percentage terms. The last two years, while an improvement, still look a step-change worse than the job growth of the '80s and '90s.
Perhaps most importantly -- at least when it comes to the animating forces of the current presidential election -- is the way that this recovery seems to have completely bypassed a certain set of workers. As the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way notes in a new report, prime-aged men still aren't working at anywhere close to the rate they did before the recession.
The numbers look even worse for men without college degrees. This chart is for all Americans over the age of 25, so some amount of this decline could be explained by worker retirements, but not all of it. See how it plunges during the recession and doesn't bounce back:
This is the group that right now is driving the political discussion over the economy. Many of them are angry and anxious about how they're faring in it.
Donald Trump has harnessed those anxieties on his way to the top of the polls for the Republican presidential nomination. It may seem incongruous that "Make America Great Again" could be a winning slogan even as the economy churns out nearly 300,000 jobs a month. But in the context of this recovery, and the way it has disappointed so many workers, it makes sense.