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Amid the tightest labor market in a generation, long-strapped Americans are seeing only small wage hikes, and economists say companies seem determined to hold onto wide profit margins for as long as they can before forking over more to workers.

Expand chart
Wages rose much more steeply in the late 1990s, the last time unemployment was as low as now. Data: BLS, BEA, Jared Bernstein analysis; Chart: Axios Visuals

Why it matters: Stubbornly flat wages and living standards are one reason for broad political disgruntlement in the U.S.

Quick take: Economists have struggling to grasp why companies are not feeling forced to pass on bigger wages to attract and keep workers despite two years of steadily dropping joblessness, reaching 3.9% last month, the lowest since 2000.

But an increasing consensus is this simple conclusion — because they can.

  • "As long as firms have the clout to hold back pay increases, they will," Jared Bernstein, chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden during the Obama administration, told Axios today.

The background: In the 2000 plunge of joblessness, wages increased by 4% on average. Today, companies across industries and the country complain of an employee shortage, but on average raised wages by just 2.6% last month, maintaining a long period of relatively flat compensation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among reasons that economists cite:

  • A new underlying structure: Productivity growth is lower, people are more or less permanently out of the work force with drug addiction and criminal records, and unionization numbers are much smaller.
  • Business trends: Companies are becoming more automated and industries more concentrated, says Martha Gimbel, research director at Indeed. "It may just be that these structural factors are making it more difficult for workers to benefit," she tells Axios.

But, but, but ... Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, tells Axios that less-watched statistics show more accelerated wage increases. Zandi cites the Employment Cost Index, which shows a 2.9% wage increase last quarter.

  • He predicts that the number will rise to 3.5% by this time next year and closer to 4% by the end of 2019.
  • "It's accelerating and is consistent with the state of the labor market," Zandi said.

Go deeper: Bernstein did a mashup of five government wage measures (chart above) that shows the far steeper wage increases in 2000. Read his Friday column in the Washington Post.

Go deeper

DOJ pressed to enforce Al Jazeera foreign agent ruling

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Justice Department is being pressed to enforce its own demand that the U.S. arm of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera register as a foreign agent.

Why it matters: The launch of Al Jazeera's new right-of-center U.S. media venture, Rightly, has refocused attention on the media company's alleged links to Doha, and DOJ's efforts to crack down on media outlets viewed as foreign interest mouthpieces.

Poll: Immigration is America's most-polarizing issue

Data: The American Aspirations Index/Populace; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Immigration was found to be the most polarizing issue in America based on new polling from Populace.

Why it matters: Americans have surprisingly similar priorities for the U.S., but immigration stands out as one of the few issues with clear partisan differences. It underscores the challenge for advocates and lawmakers hoping to pass immigration reform in the coming weeks amid narrow margins in Congress.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Lawmakers hide behind AG's investigation as Cuomo lingers

A billboard outside Albany, N.Y. Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is politically wounded but not yet dead, several state lawmakers tell Axios.

The state of play: Most are holding their fire and punting to state Attorney General Letitia James' investigation into sexual harassment allegations. They expect the inquiry to be credible and thorough — and buy Cuomo badly needed breathing room.