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Obama Thanks Himself—for a Slow, Partial Recovery

A good 2015 doesn’t make up for years of stagnation.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Americans got a raise last year, for the first time since the Great Recession. The Census Bureau’s annual Income and Poverty Data, released on Tuesday, showed a robust 5.2 percent increase in median household income. Adding to the good news, fewer families subsisted in poverty while fewer people went without health insurance.

Given the widespread reaction to the report—seemingly everybody invoking the meme “Thanks Obama” in a straight-up way, in a chorus that was joined by the President himself at a Hillary Clinton rally yesterday—you would think this cements the triumph of administration policies to bring about economic success. And there’s no question that aggregate positive outcomes are far better than aggregate negative ones. Obamacare absolutely made a difference for the uninsured population, and a strong job market created the conditions for income gains.

But digging into the data reveals a more complicated picture, especially when put in the context of what we’ve been through in the Obama era. First of all, we should be chastened by the fact that this is the first gain in median household income since 2007. That means that, after eight years in the wilderness, the post-recession recovery for the middle class only started in 2015.

It was a sharp-enough bump to restore much of the loss of the recession years. But that doesn’t make up for the opportunity cost of a near-decade of stagnation. Even with last year’s increase, households are still making 1.6 percent less than they did in 2007, and wages have been flat overall for the entire millennium (for men, earnings have flat-lined since the 1970s). And that begs the question of why it took this long for the recovery to reach the ordinary American.

What opportunities were available to get results like this earlier in the business cycle, rather than eight years into it? What if households received relief from their debt overhang and returned to spending sooner? What if we didn’t pre-empt the recovery with unnecessary austerity? A good report like this five years ago would have prevented a lot of pain, and the 2015 experience shows that it was well within our grasp.

Even putting the past aside, we’ll need several more years like this to reverse the Great Recession’s scarring. One particularly powerful data point in the Census report shows how bad it’s been: From 2009 to 2012, 34.5 percent of the population—over one in three—had at least one period of poverty lasting two months or more. We need lots of good news, not just one year.

We should also be alarmed at how hard it can be in our modern economy to get income, poverty, and health insurance moving in the right direction. This was the first instance since 1999 of higher income, lower poverty, and more Americans being insured (and only the second time ever since these reports began to be compiled concurrently in 1988).

And despite these positive figures, inequality did not really budge. It’s true that incomes at the lower percentiles grew faster than those at the top in 2015. But most of the traditional measures of inequality studied by the Census did not move in a statistically significant direction. We still have two economies, one for the rich and one for the rest.

We’re also seeing rising geographical inequality—a few islands of prosperity amid a sea of misery. Income growth was rapid inside large cities (7.3 percent), home to more than 40 million workers. But outside metropolitan statistical areas—in other words, in rural America—those 20 million workers saw their incomes decline from 2014 to 2015 by an average of 2 percent. The poverty numbers tell a similar story: The number of America’s poor went down all over the country except in rural America, where it rose 0.2 percent, a statistically insignificant number but wildly different from cities or suburbs.

Rural areas did rapidly shrink in population over the past year, leaving less total people in poverty, even if the ratio was higher. But if workers in the countryside could not be reached even in a record year for the middle and working class, it speaks to something historically severed in our ability to channel gains to those regions. Public policy should not leave millions of rural Americans behind who cannot escape their geographic destiny.

My suspicion is that if you examined this further, you would find the growth concentrated in a just a handful of metro areas—New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington, D.C.—that are pulling away from the rest of the nation. Phillip Longman chronicled this phenomenon of regional inequality last year for Washington Monthly. The rise of just a few high-performing sectors clustered in certain areas and takeovers of local businesses by national conglomerates has hollowed out much of the country. It’s also unsustainable, as the high cost of living that accompanies these well-performing areas super-charges inequality and makes it impossible for middle-income Americans to live there.

If we’re handing out credit for the positives in yesterday’s report, Obama might have to share the plaudits with an unlikely ally—Walmart. When the nation’s largest employer announced in 2015 that it would raise the minimum wage for its workforce, it had a ripple effect across the lower-wage retail space. Other department stores quickly followed Walmart’s lead, to keep their workers from leaving for higher wages.

We can see hints of the Walmart effect in the data. While household income rose 5.2 percent, incomes for individual, full-time male and female workers only went up 1.5 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively. That means that the household-income statistics either reflect more than two people within a household working, or a big increase in wages for part-time work. The part-time hypothesis is bolstered by the faster income rise for workers making around $13,000 a year or less, which intersects with part-time workers. And where are part-time workers prevalent? Retail stores like Walmart, where employees are often scheduled for shifts at less than 30 hours a week.

While it’s good that part-time workers are making more money, they’re still not making a living wage. A contingent workforce that has to cobble together two or three jobs to make ends meet—what I’ve called the 1099 economy—is not exactly one living the American dream, even if their income rises in one year.

But we can pay unqualified tribute to another champion that boosted incomes and helped move people out of poverty in 2015. Walmart’s decision to raise wages can be partially chalked up to tighter labor markets and the need to retain workers. But it’s also about the momentum of low-wage worker activist groups, which have pushed for minimum-wage increases all over the country. I don’t want to disrupt the “Thanks Obama” narrative, but you could just as easily respond to the income and poverty statistics by saying, “Thanks Fight for $15.”