When the Federal Reserve considers raising interest rates on July 28—and then again every six weeks after—MyAsia Reid, of Philadelphia, will be paying close attention. Despite holding a bachelor’s degree in computer science, completing a series of related internships, and presenting original research across the country, Reid could not find a job in her field and, instead, pieces together a nine-hour-per-week tutoring job and a 20-hour-per-week cosmetology gig. The 25-year-old knows that an interest-rate hike will hurt her chances of finding the kinds of jobs for which she has trained, and earning the wage increase she so desperately needs.
A Fed decision to raise interest rates, expected sometime this year, amounts to a vote of confidence in the economy—a declaration that we have achieved the robust recovery we need. “We are close to where we want to be, and we now think that the economy cannot only tolerate but needs higher interest rates,” the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, told Congress during a July 15 policy briefing.
But for many millions of Americans, the recovery has yet to arrive, and for them, a rate hike will be disastrous. It will put the brakes on an economy still trudging toward stability; stall progress on unemployment, especially for African-Americans; and slow wage growth even more for the vast majority of American workers.
The general argument for raising interest rates is that it will prevent wage costs from pushing up inflation. However, there is no data suggesting price instability; nor is there any indication that wages have risen enough to spur such inflation. For the overwhelming majority of American workers, wages have stagnated or even dropped over the past 35 years, even as CEOs have seen their compensation grow 937 percent. During the same period, wage gaps between white workers and workers of color have increased, and black unemployment is at the level of white unemployment at the height of the Great Recession. Meanwhile, the labor-force participation rate is less than 63 percent, the lowest in nearly four decades, suggesting that many Americans have simply given up looking for work.
Yellen has herself often urged the Fed to look at the broadest possible employment picture. Yet, during her recent congressional testimony, she downplayed the Fed’s ability to address racial disparities, saying that the central bank does not “have the tools to be able to address the structure of unemployment across groups” and that “there isn’t anything directly that the Federal Reserve can do” about it. She cited, rightly, a range of other factors, including disparate educational attainment and skill levels, that contribute to economic and social disparities between racial groups. But she also glossed over the importance of the economic environment in shaping workers’ unequal chances.