What has been the underside of the decades-low official jobless rate and the recent 49-year low in unemployment claims? A septet of widely varying pieces over the past 21 months tells us.
In “Struggling in NJ – 52 percent of all workers earn less than $20 an hour,” published in New Jersey 101.5 on January 16th, 2017, Dino Flammia introduced us to people he called ALICE, or “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” or, to use an older and pithier expression, the working poor. The real person he described, someone who, despite working full-time, seemingly got a car repossessed, “has begun putting several bills on credit cards,” and is “at risk of losing her home,” is hardly the worst off, and is one of millions.
Next, we get to “Is freelancing the future of employment?” (The Conversation, August 15th, 2017), which discussed both sides of irregular work, not only the gig-economy Uber drivers and TaskRabbit short-propositioners but professionals working without being on regular payrolls. For the latter, “freelancing is increasingly a choice that people make to escape the 9-to-5 workday,” and are closer to considering it “liberating, empowering, and even glamorous” than ordinary gig workers. The share of American “freelancers” saying they made that choice from necessity came down from 47% in 2014 to 37% in 2017 and may be “a key visible indicator of the future of work,” though “full-time, company-based work is still the standard for employment in most Western countries.” Small labor propositions, as I have described before, are still economically inferior goods, but opportunities for the likes of physicians to opt for less continuous employment are not.
We next saw a view, “Global Economy’s Stubborn Reality: Plenty of Work, Not Enough Pay” (Peter S. Goodman and Jonathan Soble, The New York Times, October 7th), once again expressing surprise that, despite showy unemployment rates, wages are lagging. When we are over 16 million jobs short due to latent demand, almost two-thirds of which comes from people not officially jobless, pay will stagnate. As the article correctly points out, the ever-increasing ability of those in other countries, along with rising use of non-company employees as in the previous piece, are factors. Weaker unions, though, are not a cause but a result, and there is no reason for same-job pay to increase more than inflation. That also covers most of the subject matter of “The economy is hot, yet many U.S. workers feel left behind. A new report sheds some light” (Andrew Van Dam, Washington Post, July 5th) – the rest is the insights that “even when Americans do find another job, their earnings don’t recover,” and “U.S. employment benefits provide less support in the first year of unemployment than those in any other country in the study.”
On we go to a relatively ignored current work problem, that “Employers will do almost anything to find workers to fill jobs – except pay them more” (Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, July 10th). Well, they will do something else – they will cry about a “skills gap,” and, per the article, complain that “labor is being paid first again” as, consequently, “shareholders get leftovers.” Why business owners seem to think that paying market prices for workers is an undue hardship remains mysterious to me.
Much of the material here was put into a book, Temp, written by Cornell labor historian Louis Hyman and released last month, and reviewed by Jennifer Szalai in the August 22nd New York Times “How the ‘Temp’ Economy Became the New Normal.” As well, Hyman, through Szalai, stunned us with “94 percent of American jobs created between 2005 and 2015 were for “alternative work,” and blamed “Manpower, the temporary staffing agency, and McKinsey, the management consulting company,” which “acted like a vise, with one supplying the labor and the other supplying the ideology.”
The seventh piece came out this week. Matthew Desmond’s September 11th New York Times “Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not” spent most of its printed-out 19 pages telling us something we should know already with a sprawling anecdotal account of a woman trying to support herself and three children on a combination of 20 to 30 hours per week as a $10-$14 per hour home health aide and various off-and-on public assistance programs, contrasted with how “these days, we’re told that the American economy is strong.” Desmond gave us plenty of erroneous reinforcement, such as the implication that wages should match productivity and that $7.25 per hour is a “poverty wage,” but more reasonably showed how this woman’s life is harder than, in a civilized society, it should be.
These articles offer three things we can take away. First, due to a variety of national and worldwide economic factors, many jobs are low-paying. Second, accordingly, we should not be cutting back the safety net, that, for example, food stamps and unemployment benefits should be consistently and easily available and, if anything, greater than they are now. Third, though, we cannot require that all positions meet anyone’s “living wage” diktat, which in real life varies immensely from person to person, place to place, and situation to situation. Personal choices still matter – if you doubt that, look over the Desmond article and tick off the bad ones the protagonist has made and still makes which affect her prosperity. We are in Work’s New Age – we can no longer expect everything material our parents and even grandparents had – but we still need to govern ourselves as well as we can.