State of Working Pennsylvania 2019

In just the past few weeks, leading American business leaders appear to have experienced a sudden and surprising bout of conscience. On Monday, August 19, the Business Roundtable, which represents the largest U.S. corporations, issued a statement signed by 181 CEOs that embraced stakeholder capitalism—the idea that corporations have obligations to employees, the community, and customers, as well as shareholders. On the next day, Tom Wilson, the chair of the executive committee of the U.S. Chamber published an op-ed titled “Save Capitalism by Paying People More.” Wilson acknowledges in blunt terms that ordinary working Americans aren’t flourishing economically. (For excerpts from Wilson’s op-ed, see Box 1 near the end of this report.)

This year’s annual “The State of Working Pennsylvania” documents the accuracy of Wilson’s observation in Pennsylvania. To be sure, this report does have a bit of good news. In 2018, for the first time since 2001, Pennsylvania workers enjoyed wage increases across the board—3.1% on average across the entire wage distribution (i.e. from the 10th percentile to the 90th percentile). These gains reflect what is now the longest economic expansion in U.S. history and an unemployment rate in Pennsylvania below 4% for the first time since before 1976.

Acknowledging this progress, the longer-term picture remains one of meager gains for workers. Over the last economy cycle, from the 2007 peak to 2018, the annual average increase in the Pennsylvania median wage has been less than half a percent. Even now, some slack remains within the Pennsylvania job market, which helps explain why wages in this expansion took so long to kick up. Underemployment remains above the 2007 pre-Great Recession level and the employment rate (share of adults aged 20 and over employed) remains below the 2007 level. If the employment rate today were at the 2007 level, Pennsylvania would have another roughly 150,000 jobs. Looking over a longer period, since 1973, the top 1% in Pennsylvania received 46% of the total increase in income in the state.