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Kitchen Table Politics: Finding And Keeping ‘Good Jobs’

The 2016 presidential race has been filled with excitement and drama. But there’s another layer to American politics that gets less attention: how issues of home, family and wallet intersect with electoral politics and public policy.

In this podcast series, we’re tackling some of the issues that matter most to Americans’ daily lives and how everyone from the presidential candidates to local governments are taking on these topics.

Kitchen Table Politics comes in five parts, with each episode tied to a different stage in life from birth through retirement. (The series, hosted by yours truly, lives within the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast feed. If you already subscribe, you’ll get all the episodes.) This week, we examine the world of work, including how Americans are faring at finding and keeping jobs; what’s happening with wages and benefits; and what the 2016 presidential candidates are proposing when it comes to job creation.

Joining me this week is Ben Casselman, FiveThirtyEight’s chief economics writer, and guest Grace Powers, president and CEO of the National Able Network, a nonprofit organization that helps unemployed and underemployed Americans get the skills they need to get good jobs.

Although the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent in May, the lowest since 2007, inflation-adjusted household income is still lower than it was a decade ago. And employment by job category can vary based on larger economic trends.

Employment also varies widely by education level, race and age. For people without a high school diploma, for example, the unemployment rate is twice that of people with a two-year college degree. For African Americans, the unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, as high as it was for whites in the middle of the recession.

During the Great Recession, the focus was on creating jobs. Today, the conversation has shifted to finding and keeping good jobs — broadly speaking, ones with the right mix of salary, benefits and stability to keep workers satisfied. Powers helps run workforce development centers for people looking to find new jobs, often older workers who’ve been unemployed. She talks about how job searches have changed in the era of social networks and online job-hunting and how to maximize a job search while staying focused.

We also discuss how the presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees see the role of politics in the jobs landscape — for example, pushing back against trade agreements in the case of Donald Trump, or offering tax credits to companies that offer apprenticeships, in the case of Hillary Clinton.

Throughout this series, we’ll be collecting your stories and playing excerpts of each episode. Below, listen to a few phone calls we received in full.

  • Thais: “I was able to get a job before I graduated.”
  • Ben: “I haven’t really been hired at a ‘real job.’ ”
  • Zach: “Eight of us graduated to be teachers. Only three of us are.”
  • Sarah: “After taxes I see about $692 every two weeks.”

Here are some highlights from our conversation on jobs and wages. These have been lightly edited for clarity.

What does a good job pay these days?

Farai Chideya: We talk about good jobs. At the end of the day, a lot of us really care — and we should — about the size of our paycheck, and that has been pretty grim for a lot of Americans for a long time. Adjusted for inflation, the typical American household earns less today than it did in 2000. Ben, what’s behind stagnation in incomes?

Ben Casselman: I think we have to be a little bit careful with the numbers here. You sometimes hear people say that the median household income hasn’t risen since the late ’80s, and that’s not really true if you account for the fact that households have gotten smaller; we have a lot more retirees who usually have relatively little income, even if they might have assets. But it is absolutely true that household incomes have risen a lot more slowly since 2000 than they did in the decades after World War II. And it’s absolutely the case that you have many more families where both parents need to work, where they’re working more hours in order to earn the same amount. The causes of that are very complicated. You hear about outsourcing and globalization — something that’s come up a lot in the campaign — you hear about the decline in manufacturing and in unions, in the sort of erosion of our of workers’ ability to negotiate higher salaries. There are a lot of intersecting pieces here, and it can be hard to tease out what the one or two dominant factors are.

How has job search changed?

Ben: How do you help especially older job seekers navigate a world that may be very unfamiliar compared to what it looked like the last time they were on the job market?

Grace Powers: It’s very unfamiliar and it changes so quickly. Even if you were in the job market five years ago, you wouldn’t recognize it today. And what we tell people is that looking for a job is a job. It’s not something you can do a couple hours a week, or that no matter how skilled you were in your previous position, that those skills somehow translate in the pursuit of employment. The other thing that’s really important here is peer-to-peer support networking; we know the majority of jobs are not gained because somebody successfully got through an applicant tracking system. It’s because they had something else going for them by way of an acquaintance, a person they met, a colleague, a phone call they made to someone asking for information. But it’s how to use that network to work side by side with these other systems that companies use.

Ben: Are there things that we can do to make it easier for people to re-enter the the labor force?

Grace: Absolutely. Make sure they are fully educated about where the demand is on the sector side and do a good job of helping them imagine and match their skills and interests with where there’s need.

Kitchen Table Politics is produced and edited by Galen Druke, Simone Landon and Jody Avirgan. Tony Chow and Lucina Melesio helped with production. Subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight elections podcast in iTunes or by searching “fivethirtyeight” in your favorite podcast app.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.