As I have written many times, my employment bias is in favor of the maximum number of work opportunities. People’s wants and needs vary so much that it is inappropriate that jobs be required to have certain benefits or even minimum wages, and such things, perforce, cut down their number. The largest employment-related gap in this country is not between those with and without certain amounts of income, but between those with and without jobs.
I still go with that. However, we need to be aware that while unemployment is around a 50-year low, more people are working for less money than since the Industrial Revolution took hold. The extent of that situation reached me in a December 19th Brookings Institution post, Marcela Escobari’s “The economy is growing and leaving low-wage workers behind.”
Cited in this piece, the headline finding from a recent Brookings report was that 44% of workers in the United States have median hourly pay of $10.22 and each year take in a median $17,950. I wondered if many in this set are patently part-time laborers such as students, but these numbers indicate an average of over 34 hours per week. Other like Brookings findings were that one-third of jobholders have contract positions, and that federal workforce development funding is down 79% since the 1970s.
A few observations jump out at me. First, if almost half are working full-time or close to it and paid this little, then what we have long called the middle class is no longer a majority. Second, we still cannot make judgments about poverty, as even the limited money above is often beyond that. Third, this jobs distribution means that many in this 44% must have poor prospects for advancing out of it. Accordingly, fourth, the lack of development money may not be as bad as it could seem, as training, as I have noted before, is not only a non-panacea but, if the number of higher-paying positions is woefully small even in these good economic times, is usually useless. Fifth, the next recession will bring on even more suffering than its number of lost jobs will indicate. And sixth, I do not see a viable solution for this situation through employment.
If we have no good way of improving our country’s prosperity through jobs, at least we can better understand the state we are in. That is the point of David Leonhardt’s December 15th New York Times “Why You Shouldn’t Believe Those G.D.P. Numbers.” He contrasted solid gross domestic product growth with low personal income improvement and Americans’ long-time economic dissatisfaction, and mentioned a Senate bill requiring publishing the GDP’s benefit to 11 different tiers of income distribution, a system already in place in Australia and the Netherlands. That would be hard to argue with and would precipitate more discussion of guaranteed basic income.
What would the United States be like if, say, 80% of workers were paid $20,000 a year or less? If people had easy access to enough food, shelter, clothing, and health care, it would not be grim. Yet neither would it be what we have considered rich. It would hurt demand for many of our products, and we might not see as much advertising for the likes of airlines or new cars. It would probably get us a guaranteed basic income by 2040 at latest. Is that where we are headed? You be the judge, and govern yourself accordingly.