Working Americans are enjoying the biggest pay boost in four decades. Experts don't expect it to last long.

Wage growth over the last three months hit an annualized rate of 6.6%, the strongest since the early 1980s. Job openings sit at record highs, and the number of job listings mentioning signing bonuses doubled in the past year. Businesses are clamoring for labor, and workers are reaping the benefit.

Much of the pay bump is linked to the nationwide labor shortage. While firms looked to quickly rehire, factors ranging from childcare costs to virus fears kept Americans out of the workforce.

Those trends might only boost workers' bargaining power for a few more months. Hiring will accelerate into the fall as schools reopen, vaccination continues, and enhanced unemployment benefits lapse, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers in a June 22 hearing.

The influx of the supply of new workers is likely to erode the fast pace of wage growth. Pay hikes seen in recent months made for an extraordinary shift for low-wage workers, but they are more a "one-time releveling" than a "permanent shift in workers' bargaining power," said Gregory Daco, chief US economist at Oxford Economics.

Democrats seem to see the writing on the wall. While President Joe Biden praised rising wages as a "feature" of the economic recovery, he's also urged Congress to pass legislation solidifying workers' right to unionize so that when firms naturally cool their wage hikes, workers can lock in gains made through the spring, Democratic Rep. Andy Levin told Politico.

"I think the gains of workers will be evanescent," he said. "For it to be durable, they're going to have to regain the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively."

Slowing the pay jump keeps inflation at bay

Hitting the brakes on worker pay might be coming at the perfect time. While the pandemic's threat has largely faded, inflation quickly replaced it as the country's largest economic risk. The latest data showed prices climbing at the fastest rate since 2008 in May as massive demand slammed up against widespread supply bottlenecks.

Most economists and government officials see the overshoot as transitory and cooling throughout the year. Yet persistently strong wage growth could turn the temporary inflation permanent. After shelter prices, low-wage sectors like restaurants are the second-clearest contributor to wage-based inflation, Goldman Sachs said in a recent note. Prices at such businesses could be "the canary in the coal mine of wage-push inflation" and serve as a "key cyclical wild card" in the bank's inflation outlook, the team led by Jan Hatzius added.

That dynamic might already be at play. Chipotle, McDonald's, and Starbucks all raised their starting wages in the last year, putting pressure on competitors to do the same or risk losing workers.

If that trend turns widespread, rising labor costs could keep inflation elevated longer than expected. For every 1 percentage point that low-end wage growth exceeds its trend, core inflation is projected to rise by 5 to 15 basis points, the Goldman economists said. The effect is only "moderate," they added, but with inflation already trending at decade-highs, an additional push could spark a cycle of higher prices and subsequent wage hikes.

While Congress and the White House wrangle overspending on infrastructure and social programs, the most pressing problem for the U.S. remains little acknowledged and unaddressed: Tens of millions of people work full time and can’t afford food, clothes, housing, health care, and proper education for their children. Their struggle is sowing division, fanning political and social tensions, and raising doubts in many Americans’ minds about the merits of capitalism and democracy. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. A living wage is attainable for everyone who works full time, but it will require business and government leaders to recognize the problem and work together to fix it, which many of them don’t seem eager to do. Despite the chatter in corporate America about stakeholder capitalism and the importance of workers, about half of the employees of the biggest U.S. companies couldn’t support a family of four. As for Congress, Democrats have offered mostly temporary relief measures, and Republicans don’t appear to be bothered that many of their constituents are struggling. 

But make no mistake, huge numbers of Americans go to work every day and don’t earn a living. When I share the numbers in conversation, I’m often met with skepticism and amazement, which I attribute to a lack of awareness more than caring. Most people don’t have time to pore over economic data, which is the only way many of them will encounter the enormity of the problem given the country’s segregation along class lines. America’s working poor are all but invisible to those fortunate enough to have well-paying jobs. 

The math becomes trickier once children enter the picture. A single parent with one child would need about $10,000 a year more than the median income to get by in Nashville, and about $30,000 more in a pricier city like Washington. Adding a nonworking spouse makes things harder, requiring about $20,000 a year more in Nashville and $40,000 in Washington. And in all cases, the gap widens with the number of children. Best positioned are two working adults in affordable cities like Nashville, although not even two median incomes are enough to support a family in more expensive markets. You don’t have to dig deep into the data to see that the U.S. economy isn’t working for everyone. In the first quarter, median weekly pay for the 112 million full-time workers was $989, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which amounts to $49,450 over a 50-week work year. For a single person living in, say, Nashville or a comparable city, that’s enough to cover the basics and even have a bit left over for entertainment or savings. But remember that half of the full-time workers — 56 million of them — earn less than the median, which in most cases isn’t enough to support one person in the most affordable places, never mind expensive coastal cities. 

Here’s the bottom line: The median income is probably enough if you’re single with no children or partnered with another full-time worker and live somewhere other than a coastal city. That excludes a lot of people. Exactly how many is hard to say based on the available data, but given the number of full-time workers and the median pay, it’s safely tens of millions of working Americans.  

There’s no silver bullet for inadequate wages, but it is possible to lift full-time workers and their families out of poverty. For starters, companies that can pay workers a living wage should do so, not as an act of charity but as a recognition that they crucially depend on a healthy and motivated workforce to produce their goods and services and make enough money to consume them. Businesses also need economic and political stability, both of which are compromised when much of the workforce is impoverished, as growing divisions and unrest have shown in recent years. 

It may sound naive to think that companies will voluntarily forgo profits today for an uncertain payoff down the road, but they do it all the time. Research and development are two examples. A growing number of companies are also spending money on environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, initiatives, investing in green technology to manage environmental risks, for instance, or improving governance to avoid mismanagement. Paying workers a living wage is no less worthy an investment. In fact, it’s an important component of companies’ relations with labor, one of several social factors that may affect financial performance, according to the “S” in ESG theory. 

It’s not just how much workers earn but also how long they can expect to keep their jobs. Highly-paid workers, particularly those without children, maybe less burdened by frequent job changes. But those scraping by on subsistence wages often don’t have extra money to fill gaps between jobs or move to find new work. Those gaps are particularly hard on families, and children often bear the brunt. That doesn’t mean workers should have guaranteed employment, but companies should view workers as partners rather than interchangeable cogs in the corporate machine, or worse, a threat.

There’s something else companies can do that wouldn’t cost them anymore and might even save them money: Allow workers to relocate. As the pandemic has revealed, lots of work can be done remotely as effectively as in an office, and much of it is in industries like technology and banking that tend to be clustered in expensive coastal cities. Workers who move to lower-cost locales would instantly enjoy a higher standard of living — and possibly help revive their adopted cities and towns. Companies could still provide local offices for those who want to work outside the house occasionally, or even full time, and it would likely be cheaper than maintaining sprawling corporate headquarters. 

Of course, not all businesses can pay more or operate remotely. This is where the government can lend a hand. All businesses should aim to pay a living wage, but for those that can’t afford to, the government should supplement workers’ wages through programs like the earned income tax credit. Government assistance is likely to be spent on necessities, which could also help local economies and spark a virtuous cycle of more spending and higher wages, particularly in small towns without large employers. 

Sure, government assistance could end up subsidizing labor costs for companies that can already afford to pay workers more, but that’s not new. Highly profitable companies such as Amazon.com Inc., Walmart Inc., McDonald’s Corp., and Home Depot Inc. routinely rely on taxpayers to sustain their workers. If big, powerful companies insist on misusing government programs, it’s hard to stop them. Ultimately, a free market relies on good faith cooperation between public and private sectors, and nowhere is that more urgently needed than ensuring that all full-time workers earn a living wage.