JARED BERNSTEIN and DEAN BAKER
Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen gave a speech a few weeks ago that was doubly unusual.
First, she provided a welcome and trenchant analysis of inequality, focusing on the stagnant income and wealth of middle- and low-income families relative to the top few percent. For the nation’s chief economist to elevate this issue is an important contribution in its own right.
Second, she declined to mention the critical role of slack labor markets in these outcomes. In what is a rare case for her, the word “unemployment” was not even mentioned in the speech. The omission was especially noticeable as Yellen, to her credit, has so consistently pointed out the extent of remaining slack in the U.S. job market.
Unemployment is down and gross domestic product is up, yet there isn’t much progress in real wages and incomes of most working families. While many reasons have been set forth to explain this unfortunate disconnect, including globalization and technological change as well as unmet skill demands and the Federal Reserve’s asset-buying program, our research suggests that the main factor behind both stagnant real wages and rising inequality is the absence of full employment. Truly tight labor markets – an unemployment rate closer to 4 percent than 6 percent – would not only boost real wages, but would give a larger lift to the lowest-paid workers and those with the least bargaining clout, pushing back on stagnation and inequality.
It’s true, as noted, that the unemployment rate has fallen quite sharply, from 10 percent in late 2009 to just below 6 percent now. This decline is partly due to job creation, but it’s also a function of people giving up looking for work and therefore not being counted as unemployed.