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The Call-In: Affordability


Time now, though, for The Call-In. The U.S. economy is adding jobs. The unemployment rate has hit record lows. The numbers show the economy is growing. President Donald Trump is taking that news to the campaign trail. Here he is at a rally in Montana on Thursday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've created 3.4 million jobs since Election Day, which nobody can even believe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But do these numbers give the whole picture? We wanted to know how the economy is playing out in communities across the United States. So we asked you to tell us about your financial situation. Nine years after the recession, are things easier or harder to afford? We received a huge response over this topic. And many of you said you're still struggling to make ends meet.

DAVID KASTNER: We are able to find jobs, I guess, but they are not, like, high-paying jobs.

MARGARITA RODRIGUEZ: We have three children, and what we pay for their child care is actually more than what we pay for our mortgage.

LISA ROW: I'm actually making less now than I did 10 years ago.

CARRIE ROSE: I feel like I'm a hamster in a wheel, going paycheck to paycheck.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was David Kastner (ph) of Pierce, S.D., Margarita Rodriguez (ph) of Washington, D.C., Lisa Row (ph) of New Jersey and Carrie Rose (ph) from Seaside, Calif.. Jamie Hamann is one of our listeners who called in. He's a histotechnologist, the guy in the lab who looks at samples to help determine if they're cancerous or not. He averages about $56,000 a year. Since the recession, he hasn't had more than a 1.2 percent pay raise in his income. He lives in Reno, Nev..

JAMIE HAMANN: I'm a single dad. I have three kids that I'm trying to raise, and - on the wages that I'm making now, which I feel are respectful wages, but it's just very difficult. The cost of living in Reno, Nev., is skyrocketing. The rent for a place where I can raise my children is getting up to like 2,000 a month. I'm able to get groceries. But, you know, I can't afford to really buy all the good healthy foods. I kind of have to buy the cheaper stuff, which is fine. I don't mind the frugal living.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what does bother him is how unprepared he feels financially.

HAMANN: If the housing situation changes, I don't know what I would do. And I'm currently not able to save. It's not building up fast enough. And if there was an emergency, I feel that me and my children would really have nowhere to go or not have the support structures. I don't know. I know it's just so much. It's so much costs, so much to live nowadays. And I don't see that cost of living decreasing at all. As a matter of fact, I feel that it's increasing very quickly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hamann feels he should be more comfortable. He has a professional job that he likes, but he feels like he's getting squeezed out.

HAMANN: I don't know. Maybe this new economy caters to the people who make $100,000 or more a year, and maybe people like me who are in this middle class are just part of a dying race in America.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We wanted to learn why so many Americans are experiencing this economic anxiety, so we reached out to Bill Rodgers, professor of public policy at Rutgers University. He also served as chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor from 2000 to 2001.

Bill, thank you so much for joining us.

BILL RODGERS: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, let's break it down then. What kind of workers are doing well right now?

RODGERS: So if you are a physician, if you are a, you know, doctor or dentist, if you look at people who are pilots, judges, engineers, these make up the top, sort of, 20 highest-paying jobs or occupations in our economy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So those are people that are in demand. So who are the people that aren't doing so well?

RODGERS: You know, many young millennials are challenged, you know, coming out of college who have the college debt is hanging over them. You also have people who are working in retail, hospitality. You know, these are individuals whose wages are either at the minimum wage or either they're tied to the minimum wage. And we haven't had a minimum wage increase since the, I guess, late-1990s now. More states and municipalities have been undertaking increases. But still, even evidenced by Friday's jobs report for June, you know, we're over 90 months into this recovery or expansion, and we're still not seeing wage gains for the typical American that are staying ahead of inflation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are some of the foundational challenges you see in the economy?

RODGERS: One, during this Great Recession and the weak recovery and now this longer expansion, about 4.7 million Americans are working part-time, but they want to work full-time. We also have another 1.4 million Americans who are - we call them want-a-jobs. They've stopped searching because they're discouraged about the job prospects. But if offered a job, they would take it. And what would happen is, if you include them into your unemployment calculation that the Department of Labor puts together, instead of a 3 point or 4 percent unemployment rate, we have a 7.8 percent unemployment rate. So that is that this recovery - you know, yes, we are - we've created 3.4 million jobs since Trump was elected, two million jobs have been created, I believe, over the last 12 months, but it hasn't been large enough to get employers or induce employers to shift people from part-time to full-time. It hasn't been enough to put pressure on wages. It hasn't been large enough to provide families with the ability to pay for their housing, to pay for their food, to pay for their health care, you know, and other expenditures that they have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we also see that companies are less willing to give actual salaried employees benefits. Even people with full-time work don't seem to get the benefits that they used to.

RODGERS: That's correct. And it also - and that really bleeds into the growth of contingent work. These could be people who are freelancers. These could be your Uber or Lyft driver.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The gig economy.

RODGERS: The gig economy or the independent contractors. Now, some people respond and say, well, you know that I like the flexibility of those hours. For many of them, that's not their primary source of income, you know, because of they can't get full-time work in their chosen job or their wages are stagnating - that they're doing the hustle. They're doing the double-hustle, the triple-hustle to be able to try to make ends meet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where does income inequality fit into this picture? Because as you touched on there, there are the haves and the have-nots. There are people that are doing well in this economy, and there are people that are doing less well.

RODGERS: Well, that's the whole underlying story, that, you know, we have divulged into what I call the a-la-carte society. And what I mean by a la carte is that if you're a CEO or if you're a physician, you have the income to be able to withstand that natural disaster because you'll have savings. You have the ability to send your kids to the best private school or the best public school. And you have the ability to also make sure that, you know, you're - you have health insurance for your family while this other reality for many Americans is, because they're not getting full-time work, their wages are stagnating, right? They're building up debt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They can't live in the right neighborhoods to send their kids to good schools.

RODGERS: Exactly. And that's the a-la-carte piece. Instead of once upon a time the contract in America was a much fuller contract that people could get the menu, and we have just shifted and put much more risk on families, and it's created this bipolar type of economy or these two-realities economy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bill Rodgers, professor of public policy at Rutgers University, thank you so much for coming on the program.

RODGERS: Sure. Lulu, thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we heard there, there are people who may have jobs, but they're struggling to find enough work. On the other hand, employers say they can't find enough workers to fill jobs. So what's going on?

Next week on The Call-In, we want to hear from employers looking to hire and job seekers looking for work. Call us and let us know your experience at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, where you're from and your phone number, and we may use it on the air. That's 202-216-9217. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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