Tom Conboy longs for the days when a college diploma provided a ticket to economic prosperity. Mike Singer pines for an era when living costs weren’t so prohibitively expensive.
Both believe a president pushing a populist platform could reshape the U.S. economy, although they’ve settled on dramatically different candidates.
Conboy, a self-employed engineer who lives in West Palm Beach, likes Democrat Bernie Sanders’ prescription for big-government solutions. Singer, a music teacher in Miami, prefers Republican front runner Donald Trump, who vows to yank jobs back from China.
The 2016 presidential campaign has struck an unusually angry tone, and much of the rancor stems from a weak labor market. Stagnant wages and a lack of good jobs have been keystone themes for the tough-talking Trump and the billionaire-bashing Sanders, two outsider candidates who might not have gained traction in more prosperous times.
Economic anxiety is acute in Palm Beach County, where at least 109,000 of the county’s 565,000 workers made less than $10 an hour in May 2015, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Economists stress that presidents have little effect on employment and wages, and neutral observers doubt that either Trump’s trade war or Sanders’ $15 minimum wage would improve Americans’ finances. Still, an economy stuck in neutral has provided fertile ground for both candidates.
Conboy points to one common source of economic angst. He laments that a professional degree no longer seems to guarantee a path to upward mobility.
“Growing up, engineers I knew made a very nice living, but I don’t see that quite so much any more,” Conboy said. “The number of people who graduate from college with very good degrees and wind up working at the local mall is incredible.”
Singer, for his part, says runaway inflation is undermining Americans’ finances.
“The cost of living is ridiculous. Things are overpriced,” Singer said. “My electrical bill 20 years ago was $60; now it’s $200. Eggs were 60 cents; now they’re $3.”
The U.S. inflation rate hasn’t touched double digits since 1981, but paychecks have risen only modestly in recent years.
From the third quarter of 2005 to the third quarter of 2015, the median wage for U.S. workers went from $768 to $924, a 25 percent increase over a decade, according to the Labor Department. Palm Beach County workers saw only a 20 percent increase in that time.
During that same 10-year period, the consumer price index rose 19.7 percent. In other words, the typical worker’s paycheck barely outpaced inflation over the past decade.
Stagnant incomes are undermining Americans’ financial confidence. Bankrate.com of Palm Beach Gardens said Tuesday that its Financial Security Index, based on an April survey of 1,000 Americans, fell to its lowest point in 19 months.
“The consumer just doesn’t have a lot of extra money to throw around,” said Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst. “They don’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling with regard to their savings.”
Workers in some fields are doing well, but most are struggling, McBride said.
“If you’re a computer programmer, if you’re an accountant, even if you’re a long-haul truck driver, there has been a shortage in those areas,” he said. “There are jobs to be had, and there are wage increases. Unfortunately, at the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of low-wage jobs where there’s a surplus of workers.”
In Palm Beach County, tens of thousands of workers toil for less than $10 an hour. The county’s three most commonly held jobs — retail salesperson, waiter or waitress and cashier — paid median wages of $10.02 or less in 2015, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of state and federal data.
By some measures, the job market has rebounded strongly from the Great Recession. The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 5 percent in March, and Palm Beach County’s jobless rate was at 4.5 percent. But weak wages have clouded what should be a sunny outlook.
“We have an emergency situation with job destruction and wages not climbing,” said Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, who ran for a U.S. Senate seat as a Democrat in 2010. “This is why we’ve seen so much anger in this election.”
Trump vows to renegotiate trade deals that he blames for pulling manufacturing jobs out of the U.S. economy. The billionaire businessman also promises to build a wall along the Mexican border.
“There’s no question in my mind that he’ll bring jobs back to the United States of America,” Singer said. “I know he’s going to build a wall. When he does, that will put many, many people to work.”
Sanders, for his part, proposes government-run health care, free college education and a higher minimum wage.
“His plan really would accelerate our economy tremendously,” Conboy said.
While Trump and Sanders have attracted huge crowds on the campaign trail, financial experts say populist policies are unlikely to change economic reality. So long as there’s a glut of American workers vying for low-wage jobs, wages will remain low, Bankrate’s McBride said.
“Nobody wants to hear this, but I don’t think anything can be done politically,” he said. “It’s a question of supply and demand.”
Staff writer Mike Stucka contributed to this story.