The economy is doing well. Why do so many Floridians feel left out?

A lot of people remain uneasy despite some good financial numbers.
Job applicants line up at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida during a June 4 job fair.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Job applicants line up at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida during a June 4 job fair. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Published July 12
Updated July 12

The economy is in fine shape, at least according to many of the most common indicators.

The unemployment rate hit a 50-year low. Inflation remains in check. Wages are up, as is the stock market. And this month we set a record for the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. So why do surveys show that many Americans feel left out?

The Great Recession gave a lot of people a permanent case of the financial jitters. Politics also plays a role. But the anxiety goes deeper than whether someone likes the current president or not. Break down some of those headline numbers and you can see why.

Start with jobs. While the unemployment rate is historically low, many of the jobs don’t come with the same benefits as in the past. More than 8 out of 10 private-sector workers participated in a traditional pension program in 1980, according to information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now it’s closer to 1 in 10. That leaves a lot of workers uneasy about the future. The gig economy compounds the nervousness. Driving for Uber comes with little security compared to a union factory job 40 years ago.

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Inflation-adjusted wages have risen in recent months, but only after years of stagnation. The gains have gone disproportionately to workers near the top and bottom of the pay scale. Highly skilled employees earn more than ever and increases in the minimum wage — to as much as $15 an hour in some cities — have helped boost earnings for entry level and low-skilled workers. Much of the middle class, especially those with fewer skills, missed out.

In most cities, including the Tampa Bay area, wages haven’t kept up with the cost of housing, the biggest expense in most family budgets. The median price for a single-family home has more than doubled since the beginning of 2010, while wages increased only 26 percent. Experts often recommend spending no more than three times your income on a home. Using that guide, a Tampa Bay household earning the area’s median income of about $52,000 wouldn’t come close to affording the median priced single-family home, which was $247,000 in April.

The bubbly stock market doesn’t help much to allay middle-class fears. The rich control the lion’s share of the market’s value. Only a little more than half of U.S. households own any stock at all, directly or indirectly through funds or pension accounts. So when the market rises, they don’t benefit as much. The rich get richer, while many Americans watch from the sidelines.

That helps explain why nearly half of adults have less than $50,000 saved for retirement, according to a recent GoBankingRates survey of 3,000 Americans. Worse yet, a third of the respondents over 55 years old had less than $10,000 set aside. Certainly, some of the people in that group could have saved more.

Financial literacy isn’t everyone’s strong suit. But for many, there’s little or nothing left after paying for essentials like housing, food and health care.

Another sign of economic instability: Personal bankruptcies rose 11 percent in Florida last year. A recent Tampa Bay Times report highlighted that many people live precariously close to financial ruin, despite the shiny economy. One bad decision, health emergency or car repair bill and they can’t catch up.

It’s certainly good news that the economy has expanded for 121 consecutive months, recently breaking the record set during the dot-com boom of the 1990s. But even that comes with a caveat. The current expansion has run farther but at a much slower pace than its previous counterparts. The gross domestic product — a measure of a country’s economic health — increased 25 percent since June 2009. Compare that to 42 percent during the dot-com expansion and 52 percent during the long run-up in the early 1960s.

This isn’t about assigning credit or blame. Presidents get too much of both when it comes to their influence on the economy. It’s simply a reminder that a solid economy doesn’t lift all boats equally. People get left behind, no matter what the big numbers say.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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