Despair

It’s No Accident Americans Are Still Broke in a Booming Economy

A new study shows exactly how badly you're getting screwed, and why.

Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor

Melania Trump looks on as Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama talk on the East front steps of the US Capitol at inauguration on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Populist appeals to Americans angry at their place in the world powered Donald Trump to the presidency. But even though Trump has spent his time in the White House pushing policies that benefit the monied classes as opposed to workers, it remains a simple truth that it's a lot harder to get by than it used to be. As many, many newspaper stories, magazine articles, and books have documented over the past few decades, it sucks to be a worker in America. Jobs are tough to get and tougher to hold onto, pay has stagnated, and debt—student loans, credit cards, whatever—is out of control. It wasn’t exactly insane to walk into a voting booth in November 2016 and conclude that the system, as presided over at least in part by Democrats was, in fact, rigged.



A new report out this month from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) makes it clearer than ever that this dynamic of workers falling behind is not some kind of statistical aberration or case of bad luck. Policymakers in America have made it a hell of a lot harder, by design, to move up in the world compared to the way things work in other countries. And despite low unemployment and other signs of a booming economy, it’s probably only going to get worse from here.

The OECD report mostly looks at data in the years leading up roughly to the time of Trump’s win in 2016. It paints a dark picture of keeping your head above water in modern America. Among other things, as detailed analyses at the Washington Post and New York have already pointed out, workers' share of the national income is uniquely low—and has fallen uniquely fast—in the US. The government also provides much less support for fired or laid-off people than other countries do, and that lack of support can haunt the unemployed for the rest of their lives. Income inequality (in terms of workers earning less than half the median) is in fact worse in the US than almost anywhere else in the developed world. And thanks to a decades-long war on organized labor, fewer workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements than workers in almost every other OECD nation.

That last point is a key one, since unionization rates help dictate everything else in American life, from how good wages are at nonunion jobs to the kinds of policies and politicians we get. As a result of a recent Supreme Court ruling, unions are about to get smaller, which means fewer Americans will be covered by collective bargaining agreements, and more will be at the mercy of their bosses. Another recent Supreme Court ruling blocked class-action lawsuits by workers, which will give them fewer ways to fight wage theft.

So on the one hand, regular Americans are in a particularly tough spot, and the OECD report suggests this is largely because unions came under withering attack and lawmakers have embraced policies favoring the super rich. On the other, that squeeze is only poised to get tighter courtesy of the judges and policies of the president who promised he alone could fix it all. Trump, however, doesn't seem to actually care about helping workers—he can’t stop crowing about how historically spectacular the economy is, and how his tax cuts and tariffs and anti-immigrant crackdowns made it all possible. Now that he's president, he seems to have decided the system is largely fine. Meanwhile, Americans increasingly agree with him that the economy seems good and that he should get the credit, polls show, but they also have less control over their financial destiny than millions of other people across the world.

Sooner or later, Americans’ real wages (accounting for inflation) will start to grow meaningfully along with—if not anywhere as fast as—Wall Street profits and their debt loads will come down, or else growth will continue to favor a tiny investor class. We all know which is more likely, and the worst-case scenario isn't the one Democrats whisper about: that the good economy will help Republicans keep control of Congress in the midterms or even the White House in 2020. The real worst-case scenario is that when the next big recession inevitably hits, the resentment that fueled Trump's rise will somehow get even hotter—and rather than launching some kind of Democratic socialist, it propels an even more craven demagogue to power.

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