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Low-wage jobs drive the recovery, says new report

Low-wage industries have accounted for 44% of job growth since the recession, according to the National Employment Law Project.
A restaurant worker fills an order at a Chipotle restaurant on March 5, 2014 in Miami, Florida.
A restaurant worker fills an order at a Chipotle restaurant on March 5, 2014 in Miami, Florida.

It's not uncommon to hear economics writers dismiss post-recession job growth as evidence of a "McJobs Recovery." Sure, jobs may be slowly coming back, the argument goes, but not good jobs. Instead, employment growth seems to be largely concentrated in the sectors of the economy where wages are lowest.

That argument received some empirical ballast on Monday, with the release of a new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) that finds low-wage industries have grown at a disproportionately high rate since the end of the recession. The report's author, policy analyst Michael Evangelist, finds that 44% of job growth since the end of the recession has been concentrated in industries where the median wage is $13.33 or less. That includes food service, retail, and administrative services (which includes jobs like security, maintenance, and janitorial work).

This is only the most recent in a series of NELP reports on the McJobs Recovery, all of which have found similar results. Evangelist told msnbc the consistency suggests this might be more than a hiccup on the road back to relative prosperity.

"Early on when we were doing these reports, we just speculated cyclical factors," he said. "So one year into the recovery, consumer demand was growing and you'd see more growth in the restaurant food service industry." But as food service continued to grow at a disproportionately high rate, NELP analysts came to see unbalanced growth as a more stable feature of the economic landscape.

"Now we're four years into this and these are still the industries that are growing quickly," said Evangelist.

Food service isn't just one of the economy's most fecund sectors: It's also its most unequal, according to another report released last week by the left-leaning think tank Demos. In that study, Demos policy analyst Catherine Ruetschlin found that food services and retail had bigger worker-to-CEO compensation gaps than any other sector of the economy.

The steady encroachment of low-wage jobs may help to explain why median income in the United States has begun to stagnate even as the wealth of the country's economic elite soars into previously unexplored altitudes. Last week, The New York Times reported that America no longer leads the world in median wealth, having been surpassed by Canada for the first time in at least decades.