Bernie Sanders Explains Why Low Unemployment Doesn't Mean Americans Are Better Off

Even as more Americans have jobs, many of these pay low wages, making it hard for families to get by.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants people to know there’s a bigger picture to the U.S. economy than the low unemployment numbers the Trump White House keeps touting.

In a conversation with The Los Angeles Times editorial board published on Thursday, the Democratic presidential candidate explained how despite the U.S. reaching decades-low rates of unemployment this year, many jobs are low-paying. And wage growth has largely stagnated in recent decades as income inequality rises.

“If I want to go out and get a job today, I can get a job. That’s true,” Sanders said in the interview. “But on the other hand ... I can’t find a job that pays me a wage that allows me to deal with health care and pay my rent or put gas in the car. So the economic crisis that we’re facing now is not unemployment, which is low. It is wages.”

The unemployment rate in the U.S. was 3.5% in November ― the lowest it’s been since the 1960s. Unemployment has been steadily dropping in recent years after reaching a peak of 9.6% in 2010 amid the Great Recession.

However, the average hourly wage for Americans last year had a similar purchasing power as it did in the late 1970’s ― 40 years ago, per a Pew analysis. And as Sanders pointed out to the L.A. Times, much of the gains in wages have gone to highest-income earners, as income inequality has been on the rise since the 1970s.

For many American workers, having a job simply isn’t enough to get by: About 44% of all U.S. workers qualify as “low-wage,” earning a median of about $18,000 per year, per a 2019 report from the Brookings Institution. According to the Federal Reserve, 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. last year said they would not be able to afford an unexpected $400 expense.

President Donald Trump often lauds his record on the economy ― though sometimes, as is his wont, he can’t get his facts straight. Sanders, meanwhile, noted that jobs figures hardly tell the whole story.

“Unemployment is low but wages are terribly low in this country,” Sanders said. “And many people are struggling to get the health care they need to take care of their basic needs.”

In his L.A. Times interview, Sanders touted policies he and other leading presidential candidates, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have been pushing to help low-income Americans. These include raising the minimum wage, passing Medicare for All and building more affordable housing. Sanders, along with progressive lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), has also been stressing the need for a federal jobs guarantee.

The federal minimum wage has not risen since 2009, staying at $7.25 per hour. In recent years, several cities and states have stepped in to raise that figure, in some places up to the $15 “living wage” advocates have long been fighting for, such as in New York and San Francisco and, starting in 2020, in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

And while the U.S. poverty rate has been gradually declining in recent years, the number of people in poverty in 2018 was still over 38 million, per the Census Bureau ― which represents 12% of the nation, or almost 1 in 8 Americans.

In his conversation with the L.A. Times editorial board, Sanders pointed out that in the very city they were in, “You got 50,000 people who are sleeping out on the streets.”

Homelessness has been worsening in many areas in recent years, with Los Angeles County seeing a dramatic 36% increase since 2010; nearly 59,000 people were homeless in the county on a given night in January 2019. California is at the forefront of the nation’s affordable housing crisis, with almost a quarter of the nation’s more than half a million Americans who were homeless in 2018 living in the state.

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