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As U.S. job market strengthens, many don’t feel it
First Published Jul 31 2014 09:55 am • Last Updated Jul 31 2014 10:06 am

Washington • The U.S. unemployment rate has plunged since the start of last year to a five-year low of 6.1 percent. And the July jobs report being released Friday will likely show a sixth straight month of healthy 200,000-plus gains.

Yet for Douglas Hunter and millions like him, happy days aren’t quite here again.

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Hunter earned $14 an hour cleaning oil drums before the Great Recession seized the economy and his job was axed. At 53, Hunter now works three days a week for $9.25 an hour, mopping floors and fixing fryers at two McDonald’s restaurants in Chicago.

"If the economy is getting better, I’m not sure for whom," he said. "It certainly hasn’t trickled down to me."

The Gallup Organization has found that consumers’ view of the economy is the glummest it’s been in seven months.

As the economic recovery enters its sixth year, a number of factors help explain why many Americans don’t feel better off: Income hasn’t rebounded. Millions are working part time even though they want full-time jobs. It’s taking longer to find work. People are still struggling with mortgage debt. Some feel down about the economy because of their political views. And most people don’t feel free to spend as much as they used to.

A closer look at the factors:

LAGGING INCOME

Most people are still earning less, adjusted for inflation, than before the recession struck at the end of 2007. Even many who kept their jobs through the recession — or easily found work after being let go — are no better off. The typical family income in current dollars is $52,959, according to Sentier Research. Factoring in inflation, that’s $3,303 less than before the recession — a nearly 6 percent drop.

A review by Wells Fargo found that after-tax income fell for the bottom 20 percent of earners and barely rose for the next-highest 20 percent during the recovery.


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"Wages are just not keeping up," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. "We don’t have an economy that is as robust as we need it to be."

FEWER FULL-TIME JOBS

Finding a steady full-time job has become harder. There are 27.4 million part-time jobs, representing 18.8 percent of jobs in the U.S. economy, according to the Labor Department. Before the recession, 16.5 percent of all jobs were part time.

Some of this increase is due to the still-sluggish recovery: Employers want to cut costs and payrolls by limiting their workers to fewer than 35 hours a week. But the trend might also reflect a lasting shift among restaurants and coffee shops, said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo.

"A lot of companies have figured out that they didn’t need employees to sell coffee between 2 and 4 p.m. that nobody is buying," Silvia said.

EMPLOYERS SLOW TO HIRE

The "Help Wanted" signs are out: There were 4.6 million available jobs in May, according to government data, the most in seven years and 20 percent more than a year ago. Yet not enough of those jobs are being filled.

Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago, and two colleagues calculated that it took an average of more than 25 days for employers to fill a vacant job in May. That was up from an average of 22.5 days last year and is the longest such figure in the 13 years that the data has been tracked.

That suggests a mismatch in the job market: The unemployed might not have the skills companies want for the available jobs. Or businesses might not be offering enough pay or trying hard enough to fill the jobs.

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