The U.S. economy keeps throwing up surprises, making it difficult to get a read on what’s happening for everyone from ordinary investors to the Federal Reserve. A growing disconnect between the fortunes of upper- and lower-income Americans could account for some of the crossed signals.

In the latest shocker, the Labor Department reported on Friday that the U.S. added 272,000 jobs in May, up from 165,000 in April and much higher than economists’ expectations. The strong reading is especially perplexing because it comes on the heels of a string of weak economic reports in recent weeks, including soft income and spending data for the month of April and a lower-than-expected reading on manufacturing sentiment in May.

It isn’t just government reports: Companies have been warning in recent weeks that consumers are pulling back. To cite one example among many, Campbell Soup , owner of Pepperidge Farm and other snack brands, just days ago lowered its sales forecast because it said shoppers are increasingly economizing on snack purchases and switching to private label alternatives.

There were also disconnects within the May jobs report that had analysts scratching their heads. For instance, while the overall unemployment rate remains quite low by historical standards at 4.0%, unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds was 7.9%, up from 6.3% a year earlier. And earlier this week, job openings fell to their lowest level in more than three years.

One possible reason for the mix of caution and abandon is that people lower on the income ladder who spend a bigger share of their income on necessities are feeling pinched and less confident about their job prospects. Meanwhile, wealthier households are still spending.

Consider one of the biggest surprises in the May jobs report, which was that the leisure and hospitality sector added 42,000 jobs. That was up from 12,000 in April and better than an average of 36,000 over the prior 12 months. By contrast, the entire goods-producing sector of the economy added just 25,000 jobs in May. Within leisure and hospitality, food services and drinking places added 24,600 jobs and the “amusement, gambling, and recreation industries” added 10,200.

This is partly the continuation of a pattern seen since the pandemic of spending on services outperforming goods as people catch up on missed experiences but don’t need any more things like home furnishings that they loaded up on during lockdown. But one would have expected that trend to be winding down by now. Instead it looks to have accelerated: According to the Commerce Department’s data on personal expenditures, spending on services rose by a real, inflation-adjusted 2.9% in April from a year earlier, up from an average 2.3% pace last year. Goods spending was 1.9% higher in April compared with a 2.0% average in 2023.

What is becoming hard to miss is that companies that serve a wealthier clientele sound much more confident lately. While food makers see shoppers struggling with inflation, cruise lines are booming.

“Consumers are strong, our consumers that we chase are especially resilient and strong,” Mark Kempa , chief financial officer of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings , said at an investor event on May 20. Cruise passengers typically have above-average levels of household income.

Stepping back, this makes a certain amount of sense. The upper cohort in the U.S. mostly own their homes, and the lion’s share are likely sitting pretty with ultralow mortgage rates taken out or refinanced during the pandemic. They are also benefiting from an effervescent stock market, including downright euphoric valuations for anything associated with the promise of artificial intelligence. They also aren’t struggling with high rates on credit card or auto loans. Instead, high interest rates are actually supplying them with record levels of investment income , as The Wall Street Journal recently reported.

It is this cohort, whether by splurging on vacations or further bidding up Nvidia shares, that is making it harder for the Federal Reserve to get comfortable cutting rates .

Write to Aaron Back at