“November was a great month for American workers as President Trump’s bold economic vision continues to pay off. With tax reform moving quickly through Congress, confidence in the strength of our economy remains high and families around the country are reaping the benefits. We’re especially pleased to see the manufacturing sector roaring back to life, adding a total of 159,000 jobs since President Trump took office after averaging a loss of more than 1,000 jobs per month during the last year of the previous administration. As we continue to unleash the American economy from unnecessary regulation and taxes, we look forward to seeing more reports like this, showing a healthy and thriving jobs market for the American people.”
— White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders
The Labor Department reports that U.S. employers added 228,000 jobs in November, somewhat better than analysts had been expecting. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.1 percent. Job gains in manufacturing were especially strong with 31,000 added last month.
The president boasted about it on Twitter.
It’s difficult to tie those gains directly to President Trump’s economic vision, however. On average, employers have added 170,000 jobs in each of the 10 months since Trump took office. That’s slightly below the 196,000 per month pace during the comparable period in 2016, under President Obama. If you throw out September of this year, when job gains were depressed by hurricanes, Trump’s monthly average is closer to Obama’s, at 185,000, but the change in administrations doesn’t appear to have had much effect on the overall job market.
The job gains in November were widespread across industries and demographic groups.
“We’re at that point in the cycle where the market is tight enough that it’s really rewarding everybody,” said Kevin Hassett, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.
He noted that unemployment among workers without a high school diploma fell by half a percentage point to 5.2 percent. And the jobless rate among Hispanics dipped to 4.7 percent, the lowest level on record.
“If we could sustain growth at this level for another couple of years then the amount of progress we could make on income inequality and wage growth for middle America would be maybe even unprecedented,” Hassett said.
Despite the tight labor market, though, wages have risen only modestly in the past year.
“Wage growth was not as strong as we’d like to see it,” Hassett acknowledged. “We fully expect that that’s going to accelerate next year if the tax bill passes.”
Tom Maher, who runs a Manpower temporary franchise in Dayton, Ohio, agreed that paychecks need to get bigger.
“Wages are rising, but they’re not rising as fast as I believe they really should in order to attract the workers that they need,” Maher said. “Virtually every manufacturer in the area has a help-wanted sign outside their window.”
Indeed, a shortage of skilled workers could be a drag on future economic growth.
“There is some slack in the labor market,” said Constance Hunter, chief economist at KPMG. “But there’s a big question about whether that remaining slack in the labor market can be deployed.”
“What I expect is we will start to see increasing labor shortages as we go into 2018. And at some point — and it may be late 2018, it may be mid 2019 — those labor shortages are going to really limit the ability we have to continue expanding.”
At a White House Cabinet meeting this week, Trump said he wants to draw more people into the workforce.
“We’re also getting into the pool of the 100 million people that are not working,” Trump said. “That pool is now coming back.”
According to the Labor Department, there are 95 million Americans 16 and older who are not working. But that figure includes retirees, students and voluntary stay-at-home parents. It’s an open question how many might be lured into the workforce. Lower taxes might offer a carrot to would-be workers. The administration is also considering sticks — in the form of a less generous safety net.
“I know people, they work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all,” the president told supporters in Missouri last week. “And the person who is not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his or her ass off. And it’s not going to happen. Not going to happen.”
This week the Agriculture Department announced a push to limit the food stamp program — known as SNAP — in an effort to push more people into the workforce.
“SNAP was created to provide people with the help they need to feed themselves and their families, but it was not intended to be a permanent lifestyle,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “We want to provide the nutrition people need, but we also want to help them transition from government programs back to work and into lives of independence.”
The White House had telegraphed this move in May when the president unveiled a budget calling for cuts in food stamp spending.
“We need folks to work,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said at the time. “We don’t have enough money to take care of the people — everybody — who doesn’t need help.”
As of August, there were more than 41 million Americans receiving food stamps. Advocates for the program note that the government already requires able-bodied adults without children to find work within three months to collect benefits.
Trump also boasted this week about the rising stock market.
“We have a stock market that has hit record highs 81 times since our election victory,” he told Cabinet members. “It’s at a new high right now.”
The S&P 500-stock index has risen more than 23 percent since Election Day last year. Along with a rising real estate market, that’s helped to push the nation’s total household wealth to $96.9 trillion. However, as NPR noted last spring, only about half the people in the country own stocks either directly or through retirement accounts.
“You could argue that there’s a trickle-down effect,” said KPMG’s Hunter, “but actual evidence of that meaningfully changing people’s lives over the long term seems to be de minimis.”