In one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history, the ongoing revelations and carnival atmosphere make it easy to forget an important reason underlying the divisiveness: an economy that has failed to deliver for middle-class families. In the electoral end game, national, statewide, and local candidates need refocus on what they will do create an economy that works for all. Middle-class voters need to judge candidates based on their record and policy proposals on kitchen-table issues.
In Pennsylvania, last year was the best in two decades for middle-class wages. But longer-term trends have not been kind. Those trends help explain the anger tapped by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Our recent report, The State of Working Pennsylvania 2016, shows just how unkind the long-term wage trends have been for just about every race/ethnicity, gender, and educational (college/non-college) group.
White Pennsylvania men without a four-year college degree earn $2.18 less per hour today than 35 years ago–about $4,500 less for a full-time, full-year worker. This erosion of opportunity has coincided with a jarring disruption of the economic role played by working-class men, in families and in society. Those wage trends help explain why many white working-class Pennsylvania men are angry.
The wage trends for other groups don’t look a lot better. In fact, black men without a four-year college degree have had it even worse. Their wages have declined by $3.90 per hour from a lower starting point, a loss of $8,000 annually for a full-time, full-year worker.
Black and white Pennsylvania non-college women have gained some ground, but along with Hispanic women, their wages remain far below those of white men. In the last 15 years, even college-educated Pennsylvanians in all of these races/ethnicity and gender groups have seen their wages stagnate.
Based on the economic facts, each of these groups has a right to feel aggrieved. At the same time, the data should also temper any one group’s resentment of other groups. All these race/ethnicity and gender groups are in a similar boat.
The one group that has done exceptionally well in Pennsylvania long term is the highest-income 1 percent. This thin slice at the top received slightly more than half of the total increase in Pennsylvania income since 1979. Another quarter of the overall increase in income went to the next-richest 4 percent.
Long-term wage and income trends suggest that every group of working Americans has a common stake in creating an economy less tilted towards the 1 percent. A recent CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows that most people in most groups understand this. By big margins, every demographic and education group — including white, non-college men — thinks that government provides too much help to wealthy people; not enough to “people like you;” and not enough to poor people.
The poll makes clear that people are ready to come together around a positive agenda to raise middle-class pay. For Pennsylvania, the end of our recent report outlines such an agenda. Many legislators and candidates favor significant parts of this agenda, including policies to raise wages across the board, establishing paid sick and family leave, and giving workers more bargaining power in the economy.
Despite this, however, some Pennsylvania legislators and the state’s main conservative think tank favor policies that would lower Pennsylvanians’ pay even more. They oppose a higher state minimum wage that would especially benefit women and people of color. They favor lowering construction workers’ pay on state-funded construction, which would mostly hurt white men. They want to reduce, not increase, the power of working families in politics and in bargaining with employers by weakening labor unions — an equal opportunity attack on middle class members of every all race, ethnic, gender, and educational groups.
The dramatically different policy agendas of legislators and Pennsylvania candidates for public office puts the responsibility back on middle-class Pennsylvania voters as they head to the polls. They can have an economy that works for all if they vote for candidates who will support policies favorable to the middle class. But if the politics of division distract them from taking a hard look at what candidates would actually do, they could end up with more decades of wage stagnation.
Dr. Stephen Herzenberg is an economist and the executive director of the Keystone Research Center.