WASHINGTON – Friday brought some good economic news for President Donald Trump, 136,000 new jobs and a new low unemployment rate of 3.5 percent in September. These are numbers he can refer to in his re-election campaign.
But two years plus into Trump's presidency, there is also a set of figures indicating some lingering, problematic trends that remain. And when the 2020 campaign begins these data points, it's a reminder that deeper economic changes, the kind he promised in 2016, are hard to deliver.
Start with the general economy and who wins and loses in it. Yes, income is up and unemployment is down, but census data released in September shows that income inequality not only persists, but it is also growing ̵
Census data showed that the Gini index, a measure of income inequality, climbed to .485 in 2018 in the annual American Community Survey, up from .482. In Gini, 0 corresponds to perfect income equality and 1 corresponds to perfect inequality, and this year's figure represents a new height in the ACS data.
But the truth about this number is that it has grown quite regularly since the 1960s. Driving upwards is simply not an easy trend to reverse. Changes in the labor market and the structure of the US economy during that time have led to the loss of middle-income jobs that led to the middle class.
Another long-standing challenge exists in Production Jobs, a key economic figure that Trump promised to revive to levels not seen in decades. There has been some positive movement, jobs in the industry increasing by around 500,000 since 2016 to around 12.8 million jobs. But this figure is well below the millions of new production jobs the president to create and analyze shows that the sector is now collapsing.
Even with the growth of Trump's time, the number of production jobs is not back to what it was in 2008, and it is still far behind where the figure was in September 2000 when there were 17.2 million production jobs in the United States.
And the truth is that this trend goes back decades. Production jobs have gone down 30 percent since 1980. Automation and greater factory efficiency have made this trend difficult for slow.
What about working with coal mining? Miners were a major constituency for Trump in 2016. Again, there are some small signs of improvement here. Work on coal mining has increased somewhat since Trump took office, but by a very small amount – only around 2,500 positions since January 2017. And, from a broader point of view, the 53,300 employees employed in coal mining today are still down sharply from the 89,300 people who worked as miners back in September 2011.
There has been a decline of about 40 percent in coal mining since then. And that decline is driven by a number of factors, including alternative sources of power generation such as wind, solar and of course natural gas.
The decline in these jobs is also not a sudden story; it has deep roots. Back in 1990, more than 130,000 people worked in coal mining.
And at heart, where Trump won by large margins in the countryside with promises of better agricultural offerings, there are also long-term trends that hit the family going especially hard and forcing many of the business.
This week, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue acknowledged the problem and told reporters that it will be more difficult for dairy farmers to do so with smaller herds. "In America, the big ones get bigger and the little ones go out," Perdue said. "I don't think in America that we, for any small business, have a guaranteed income or a guaranteed profit."
They were tough words, but the data shows the point of farm size.
For the last 30 years, smaller farms, those with more than 50 acres and less than 2,000 acres, have seen declines, some large ones. It fell 30 percent among farms with between 260 acres and 1999 acres of land. But there has been a 27 percent increase in the number of large farms, those with more than 2,000 acres of land.
In other words, "the big is getting the small and the small" is not a new trend under President Trump. It is the result of larger market influences that have been at work for decades, and which favors larger farms that can work on a different scale.
The point here is not that Donald Trump has failed in these areas, it is that "success" is remarkably difficult. Other politicians have promised similar economic renewals and failed.
No one can wave a magic wand and bring back middle-class jobs or stop progress in automation and alternative energy or farm consolidation.
And despite this week's good jobs numbers, it's a challenge facing the Trump campaign in 2020. He was elected on the promise of major economic change. That kind of talk is good campaign feed, but it can also be a political issue if and when voters find that the big changes have not come.