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Expand chart
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

The hottest months on record have been the backdrop for what, on the surface, has seemed to be an equally red-hot U.S. labor market, with the lowest joblessness in a half century, rising wages, and bettering prospects for the least advantaged people.

Quick take: But, at odds with classic textbook lessons, experts now cite evidence that the economy may actually only be warm, with millions of people still wishing to get hired, to turn part-time or gig work into full-time employment, and to earn more money.

What's happening: In its latest report, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the economy produced a great surplus of work above and beyond the number required to absorb new job entrants. Just 80,000-100,000 jobs are needed to soak up fresh graduates and other new entrants to the work force each month, and the economy produced 164,000 in July.

  • That left the July jobless rate at 3.7%, the lowest since 1969. Wages rose by 3.2%, double the 1.6% inflation rate.
  • Moreover, unemployment for black men remained at a record low of 5.8% and for black teens at 17.7%.

All kosher, right? Not if one is guided by history:

  • If you smooth out for monthly gyrations and take a 3-month average, the number of jobs increased by 140,000, well below the 211,000 during the same months in 2018, and the least in two years.

And wages are not rising as they should if you believe in the law of supply and demand, along with historical trends, which say they should be increasing at a fast clip since employers should be robustly competing to grab workers.

  • Instead, the year-over-year real average annual wage increase of 1.6% is far below the rates of 4% and more marked month after month just prior to the Great Recession.
  • Nominally, writes Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, manufacturing wages rose an average of 2.5% over the year. But when you factor in lower weekly hours, the increase was just 1%, below inflation.

What economists now suspect: We are not in a tight jobs market.

In a recent piece, the WSJ's David Harrison cites work by David Bell, an economist at the University of Stirling, and Dartmouth's David Blanchflower, who blame the sluggish wages on an outgrowth of people working part-time.

  • This critical mass of people who actually want full-time work has created an in-built flaccidity in the job market, and been "the main influence on wages in the years since the Great Recession," Bell and Blanchflower write in a 2018 paper.

Thought bubble from Axios markets reporter Courtenay Brown: "There's sort of this chicken-or-egg dynamic here. Wages aren't growing because workers aren't coming off the sidelines, so there's not enough competition for talent for companies to raise pay. Meanwhile, workers may not be coming off the sidelines because wages aren't spectacular enough to make them jump back in."

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.