Jobs are up. Will employment stay a major election focus?

June's job reports showed growth that outstripped predictions – good news after a disappointing May – so will concerns about employment continue to dominate the presidential election?

David McNew/Reuters/File
Job seekers fill out applications during the 11th annual Skid Row Career Fair at the Los Angeles Mission in Los Angeles in 2012.

From Bernie Sanders’s call for a $15 minimum wage to Donald Trump’s bashing of NAFTA, the employment landscape has dominated this year's presidential election. A strong jobs report is unlikely to shift the tone, say experts.

"No politician wants to sit out there and say, 'Things are really good,' when people are saying, 'Things are really bad,' " says Donald Grimes, senior research associate at the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy at the University of Michigan.

But in fact, the numbers are looking up.

The employment report released Friday found that job growth in June saw the largest gain since October 2015, with the addition of 287,000 jobs – a huge leap from what was projected. Unemployment remains under 5 percent, despite a slight rise that some experts suggest is an artifact of how unemployment is calculated. (People not looking for work aren't counted as "unemployed," so this uptick could reflect an increase in optimism, as more people re-enter the job search.)

But despite a growing economy, the presidential candidates are painting a bleak picture.

“There’s no question people are not happy, and I don’t think there’s any question that the data actually reflects what’s happening to the economy,” says Dr. Grimes, referring to the positive jobs report. “The question is, what is the dissonance?”

Some of the answers to that question may be found in the nuances of the report itself, which have led some observers to call the unemployment rate misleading in that it doesn’t include the number of Americans who have not looked for work within the last 27 weeks, or take into account people who are underemployed or have little job security or benefits due to temp and other non-salaried jobs.

“What we don’t know from sheer number of jobs created is what are these jobs – are they $18 an hour jobs with health benefits, or are they $9 or $10 an hour jobs with no benefits?” says Gary Nordlinger, a professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He adds that underemployment is another issue, with college graduates taking temp work or “cobbling together a couple part-time jobs just to get by.”

Benefits and job security are another piece of the puzzle, and the number of people who lost their jobs or finished temporary positions rose by 203,000 to 3.8 million, according to the report. Temporary contract positions often come without benefits or security, adding more stress to workers.

The socioeconomics of job loss has played a key roll in how voter alliances have been formed, and experts say that a key part of Mr. Trump’s appeal – even in states like Pennsylvania that don’t usually swing Republican – is linked to his promises about restoring America’s greatness, which many see as a return to more-abundant employment opportunities.

And while manufacturing outsourcing and changes in energy sources have negatively impacted large swaths of the American population (though manufacturing is much stronger than most Americans realize), income inequality has driven most economic growth into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans.

And while Grimes points to research by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California–Berkeley that suggests that the income gap between the ultra rich and the very poor hasn’t widened in 15 years, he says that the income gap may be widening between the professional echelon of the upper middle class and the core middle 50 percent of the middle class.

In addition, he suggests, “growing inequality on a geographic basis” may be more significant than across individual income groups, as property values and wages grow for on the coasts but not in the middle of the country. 

And while the American wage is up, people also can't access credit or refinance as freely as they could before the recession triggered banking reforms, Grimes notes, so even people making more money than in the past can be feeling crunched if they want to spend a bit outside their means.

“The people who are losing out to the global economy in the US, they can find Trump very attractive and there are millions of them,” says Mr. Nordlinger.

These are people, he says, “who were brought up by their parents and teachers who said, ‘If you work hard and play by the rules things are going to turn out okay,’ and they have worked hard and payed by the rules and they have been hurt by globalization."

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