Economists were quick to point out the obvious: There’s no sign of the “very massive recession” Donald Trump predicted in a recent interview with the Washington Post, either now or any time soon. In fact, overall job growth is strong, suggesting a modest economic expansion is likely to continue.
But Trump wasn’t speaking to economists. He was speaking to millions of angry Americans who feel Trump is exactly right about economic collapse. For many of them, a kind of unacknowledged recession has been chipping away at their living standards for a decade and a half, with no end in sight.
The commonly accepted definition of a recession is two or more consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. That hasn’t happened since 2009, if you’re looking at the U.S. economy as a whole. But there are many pockets of economic stress throughout the country, with millions falling behind even if national data doesn’t highlight the problem.
A Yahoo Finance analysis of state-by-state data earlier this year, for instance, found that incomes have grown by less than inflation in 28 states since 2007, indicating that the purchasing power of the typical family has declined in those states. Manufacturing employment – the higher-paying blue-collar jobs many families used to depend on – has dropped in all but six states since 2007. Among the states suffering the most with job losses and stagnant income: New Mexico, Nevada, Florida, Alabama and Michigan.
Some national numbers show the problem as well. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, is still 0.3% lower than it was in 2000, according to Sentier Research. That means the typical family earns slightly less than it did 16 years ago, an extraordinarily long period of stagnation. Some families have done better than the median, but some have done worse, and it’s a good bet many of the underperformers turn up at Trump campaign rallies (and Bernie Sanders rallies too). If your family is earning less than it was 10 or 15 years ago, it doesn’t really matter what the official definition of recession is, because you’re in a personal recession that has lasted way too long.
There have always been haves and have-nots in the U.S. economy, but the wall between them seems to be getting higher. Workers connected to global trade and the digital revolution are doing well, and there are enough of them to push overall growth of the U.S. economy over 2% and create more than 200,000 new jobs each month. The healthy parts of the economy include tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Denver, Austin and Boston, coastal cities such as New York, Miami, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, sun belt meccas such as Dallas and Houston, and even farm-belt states like Iowa and Nebraska.
Workers hoping for lucrative, lower-skill work that that doesn’t require a college degree are the ones who face declining opportunity. Robots and software handle many of the rote jobs humans used to do (assembly-line work, travel agents, bank tellers), with entrepreneurs continually hunting for old industries susceptible to technological disruption. And there are still many left to disrupt.
The United States also has a thinner safety net than a lot of other advanced economies, especially those in Europe. On the whole, that has left millions of displaced workers who aren’t sure what to do, where to go or whom to ask for help. On the ground, where people live, there is not one U.S. economy, the way economists measure national data in the aggregate. There are at least two—the thriving digital economy of the 21st century, and the legacy, declining industrial economy of the 20th.
Whether wittingly or not, Trump has connected with workers stuck in the declining industrial economy and given voice to their frustrations. “People are extremely unhappy in this country,” Trump told the Post. He ought to know, since angry voters have made Trump the leading Republican presidential contender. The question is whether there are enough unhappy people to actually make him president.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.