Column: The U.S. Has Two Economies — How Long Will It Continue?
Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
By Catherine Rampell
There are two American economies right now: a buoyant recovery resting atop a possible depression.
There's the economy of higher-income, mostly college-educated, white-collar workers: people who still can work from home (as I can), who can order delivery for nearly every need or desire, and whose finances barely have been dented by the recession, if at all. For these households, the recession largely is over.
In fact, by late June, high-wage employment already had fully recovered all the ground lost since the pandemic began, as my colleague Heather Long recently pointed out, citing data from Brown University economics professor and Opportunity Insights co-director John Friedman.
Then there's the other economy.
That's the economy of lower-wage, predominantly non-college-degreed, blue- (or pink-) collar workers. These are people once employed in restaurants, bars, hotels, salons, gyms and retail stores, who generally must show up in person, but whose customers now are afraid to do so. Their employers have been knocked out of business, many permanently.
Only about half of jobs in the lowest-paying quartile that were lost in the spring had been recovered as of late June, according to Friedman's calculations. Using more limited data available so far, Friedman projects that more than a third of these jobs still were "missing" as of mid-August.
In that first economy, U.S. homebuilder confidence just matched its highest level ever, as ultralow interest rates encourage Americans who still are employed to trade up to newer and more spacious houses. In that second economy, home mortgage delinquencies just hit their highest rate since the housing bubble burst a decade ago. Delinquencies for Federal Housing Administration-backed loans - commonly used by lower-income and first-time home buyers - reached their highest level since at least 1979, the earliest year on record.
There's the segment of the economy where retirement accounts are flush. Stock markets recently hit record highs, after all, thanks to loose monetary policy, optimism about a future COVID-19 vaccine and assorted animal spirits. Then there's the large segment of the economy that owns no stocks, has little to nothing saved for retirement and isn't sharing in this wealth creation.
One has to wonder how much longer the two economies can continue diverging, before the depressed economy begins to weigh down the buoyant one - particularly given the recent expiration of the federal $600 weekly jobless benefit, a lifeline that had enabled those in the "bad" economy to continue spending (and feeding their families, and keeping a roof over their heads) as if they were members of the "good" economy.
With states and cities in fiscal crisis, another wave of public-sector layoffs, too, probably would slash not only white-collar government jobs, but also critical services that higher-wage private sector workers rely on.
President Donald Trump claims to already have vanquished the nation's economic challenges - presumably because he's looking at the economy as experienced by Mar-a-Lago members, and also because he hasn't bothered to learn how little his own executive actions actually do. When asked Wednesday about his call for a boycott of Goodyear tires, he proclaimed that any workers harmed by his boycott easily could "get another good job" because (thanks to his leadership) the labor market already is great again.
Meanwhile, overall unemployment remains higher than it ever was during the Great Recession. New jobless claims are ticking up. Layoffs once hopefully considered "temporary" officially are being recategorized as "permanent." With lockdown orders partly lifted but coronavirus infections not yet contained, the virus still is in charge - and still disproportionately inflicting pain upon both the bodies and the finances of the working class.
It's a strange turn of events.
In the last presidential election, Trump rode to victory on a narrative that fat-cat Washington elites had ignored the struggles of the common man. Now Trump's beloved working class increasingly has become an involuntarily nonworking class and Trump doesn't bat an eye. To the extent he occasionally remembers their hardship, his administration's chief strategy for helping them involves more tax cuts for the rich.
"You want to help the blue-collars, cut the corporate tax rate. And I would put the capital gains rate in that category," National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow recently said. For context, the top 1% of households received three-quarters of all long-term capital gains last year.
It's truly a phenomenal feat of propaganda that the public still rates Trump as better on the economy than his presidential opponent, Joe Biden, despite the economic collapse the incumbent has presided over. Trump clearly believes it. Maybe Americans in the "good" economy do, too.
At some point, though, the Americans left behind might start to notice, and resent, the victory party happening without them.