A lot of ink is consumed trying to explain why we have the greatest economy ever, the worst economy ever, an economy that is solid and growing, an economy that is stalled, or an economy teetering on the edge of disaster. Any permutation of economic indicators can be used to make a case for any scenario.
It‘s always good to have facts supporting a point-of-view. The facts are that today’s economy offers a little something for everyone, bull or bear.
The unemployment rate is 3.5%, a 50-year low. Getting lower is difficult due to a permanent cache of those happily unemployed. The monthly job growth rate in September (+136,000) is down from the previous three months, but has shown generally average or better month-to-month growth, steadily increasing since 2009. But, when specifics are reported, 9,300 truckers lost jobs in the last two months. Farms over 2,000 acres seem safe, but large numbers of small, family farms are steadily going under. To those truckers and farmers, job growth and record low unemployment still mean no paycheck.
Family and individual income is another factor in determining economic strength. This is a topic first discussed among the Founding Fathers. One of their greatest fears during the design of our republic was that too much income divide could scuttle the experiment.
Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini developed the Gini Coefficient, or Index, in 1912. The index is used to measure income inequality. The scale ranges from 0 to 1 with 0 being perfect income distribution (everyone has the same amount of income) and 1 representing the extreme of one plutocrat getting 100% of the income––the larger the coefficient, the greater the income inequality. U.S. income inequality has grown steadily for five decades. The Gini Index grew from about 0.380 in 1970 to 0.400 in 1980 to 0.425 in 1990, and climbed to 0.485 in 2018. South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana have the highest current indexes, all over 0.600. The U.S. is chasing that amount of income inequality.
While the index grew, average household income has grown to $62,000 (+0.8%) which is the highest dollar income ever measured by the American Community Survey. What does both the Gini Index and household incomes increasing indicate? It shows that the income distribution is getting even more acute––the dollar increase was doled out unevenly. One reason may be the 2017 tax cuts that ended up favoring those already wealthy. Today the S&P 500 CEOs average $14 million salaries a year. Rank-and-file workers in those companies earn $38,600. Those 500 CEOs make in one day what their millions of employees make in a year! The wealthiest enjoyed even more growth than the average––the rich are getting richer.
Remember those 9,300 truckers and small-acreage farmers? They are unemployed and earning little. Add to that the promised return of industrial and fossil fuel jobs that are slowly increasing, but appear ephemeral and are not functioning at a rate that can influence family economic stability. Add yet another large group of people, including teachers and other professionally trained workers, working two or three jobs and still not earning enough to make ends meet. 14% of the population, 39.7 million U.S. citizens live in poverty, including 12.8 million children.
On the flip side, the top 5% of households (most dual income) earn about $166,200 per year. The worth (total worth, not yearly income––some of these people don’t work at all and live on inherited and/or investment income) of the top 10% averages nearly $2 million. The net worth of the 1% averages $10.4 million. Add any discussion of the Bezos family ($160 billion), Bill and Melinda Gates ($105 billion), Warren Buffett $84 billion), and the handful of fellow multibillionaires clearly shows tremendous income disparity.
Top 10% numbers don’t mean anything to you? Well, how much does it take to “make it”? Statistics show that an income of $24,000 a year ($2,000/mo.) can sustain a frugal lifestyle. Add a partner who contributes $20,000 ($1,667/mo.) annually to the family, boosting funds to $42,000, to be comfortable. That is still $20,000 a year short of the median household income. Statistics offer data, but everyone needs to chime in to make those numbers real.
Study the Gini Index all you want; take your Dramamine, jump on the stock market rollercoaster, and enjoy the ride to a new high or a new low every other day; eagerly anticipate the monthly jobs report; and prepare to be disappointed when the quarterly GDP isn’t more than meh. Do all of that to your heart’s content, but the only number that matters is the bottom line of our own monthly family budget.
Paying all our bills, going out on a date-night, springing for Friday night pizza, keeping the kids in shoes and jeans that fit, and after that, having a little left over to put in the savings account each month is the definition of the American Dream for many folks. The opportunity to work hard and achieve a level of stability is the answer to whether the American economy is good or bad. Each one of us has a different, yet accurate, way to determine that answer.
There are 327 million microeconomies out there and everyone’s an expert with the right answer, whether it be yea or nay, to: “Is the economy good or bad?”