What Ails the U.S. Labor Market: Too Many Bad Jobs

Monday, April 21, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Writing in the New York Times Week in Review, Louis Uchitelle reviews the recent decline in the floor for wages in the U.S. labor market.

The $20 hourly wage, introduced on a huge scale in the middle of the last century, allowed masses of Americans with no more than a high school education to rise to the middle class. It was a marker, of sorts. And it is on its way to extinction.

Americans greeted the loss with anger and protest when it first began to happen in big numbers in the late 1970s, particularly in the steel industry in Western Pennsylvania. But as layoffs persisted, in Pennsylvania and across the country, through the ’80s and ’90s and right up to today, the protests subsided and acquiescence set in.

Hourly workers had come a long way from the days when employers and unions negotiated a way for them to earn the prizes of the middle class — houses, cars, college educations for their children, comfortable retirements. Even now a residual of that golden age remains, notably in the auto industry. But here, too, wages are falling below the $20-an-hour threshold — $41,600 annually — that many experts consider the minimum income necessary to put a family of four into the middle class.

The nation’s political leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — have argued that education and training are a route back to middle-class wages for those who have fallen out. But the demand isn’t sufficient to absorb all the workers that the leaders would educate.

…. The trend in the hourly work force is striking. Take only the peak years in each business cycle, starting in 1979. The proportion earning at least $20 an hour declined from 23 percent that year, to 20 percent in 1980, to 18 percent in 1989, and to 16 percent in 2000. Manufacturing was hit the hardest.

Uchitelle doesn’t take the data to the next point, which is a focus of our research at The Mobility Agenda: the high proportion of the U.S. labor market made up of low-wage jobs. Our policy leaders haven’t focused nearly enough on the fact that the U.S. isn’t just losing better jobs, growth in low-wage jobs is changing our economy in ways that affect all of us. Our economy is heavily dependent on individual spending. When workers don’t earn enough to take care of daily expenses like housing, transportation, and food – spending and consumption decline. And that hurts the economy for all of us. As is apparent today.

Unfortunately, over 40 million jobs in the United States—about one in
three—pay low wages of $11.11 or less, often providing no employment benefits and little flexibility
. Even though the United States is among the wealthiest nations in the world, employers pay these workers less than workers who hold similar jobs elsewhere.

The last decade has seen some progress on advancing a number of well-known policies to improve job quality by boosting the minimum wage and expanding publicly subsidized employment benefits, like child care and wage subsidies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Likewise, we support efforts to address education and advancement strategies that prepare workers for skilled jobs.

Still, when one worker advances out of a low-wage job and another worker takes it, the job does not change.

In contrast to the manufacturing jobs, many of these jobs are in growth sectors like retail and hospitality, jobs that will not be off-shored because they are geographically specific.

At The Mobility Agenda, we’ve surveyed key contacts across the nation for new ideas and strategies to strengthen the labor market by improving these jobs. State and local stakeholders are experimenting with a host of new initiatives to improve low-wage jobs. These innovative ideas are less well known and are not commonly incorporated into the agenda of advocates and academics. For much more information about these new strategies, see our web based resources on this research, starting here.

E.J. Dionne Finds Inclusion on the Campaign Trail

Tuesday, April 08, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

In his column today, E.J. Dionne (a favorite of The Mobility Agenda) reports that the message of “inclusion” on the campaign trail has overcome old-style, slice-and-dice-progressive-constituencies “micropolitics”.

It’s great to have the press call attention to this concept. And no surprise that E.J. Dionne is one of the first to do so.

Talking about the Economy, Not Poverty

Thursday, April 03, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

The Nation magazine recently praised efforts by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D- CA), to introduce a plan to cut poverty. The detailed package of policy proposals, “The Anti-Poverty and Opportunity Initiative,” calls for:

…. $73 billion in FY 2009, increasing to $129 billion in FY 2018, to fund a comprehensive strategy to cut poverty in half in a decade, including: expanding child care and increasing Head Start funding; making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for larger families; increasing funding for Food Stamps programs; increasing housing vouchers by 200,000 annually; lifting restrictions on TANF, Food Stamps, SSI and Medicaid for documented immigrant families; fully funding block grants to states with broad anti-poverty strategies and distributing targeted grants to states for families where a parent or child has a disability; increasing funding for Indian Health Services, education, housing and infrastructure, natural resources management, and other areas impacting Native American poverty; and reversing the 20 percent cut in child support enforcement.

The initiative incorporates many policy ideas advocates, academics, community organizations, and other stakeholders have been wishing that Congress and the administration would adopt – for many years now. Individual lists might differ a bit from Congresswoman Lee’s, but any Congressional staffer from a progressive office already has a list like this memorized.

So why aren’t these proposals the law of the land?

It’s probably because supporters have reached everyone persuadable by talking about the proposals as “anti-poverty” initiatives for forty years. And all that support still isn’t enough to overcome the opponents of legislation like this. While many people want to do something about poverty—it’s not a high priority for voters. In February, the Gallup Poll asked voters about “the most important problem facing the country” and just 2 percent named poverty/hunger/homelessness.

That means friendly policymakers don’t have the political space they need to take on opponents.

And continuing to use the poverty banner means it is unlikely that this plan will generate adequate support in the future. There are a few reasons for this:

* The U.S. definition of poverty is out of date and flawed, allowing opponents to use it to limit policy solutions to a narrow very low-income group.
* Public understanding of the causes of (irresponsible and immoral behavior) and remedies (responsible personal behavior) for poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
* Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in the legislative debate.

In fact, when Senator Clinton announced her support for a plan to adopt a goal to cut child poverty in late February, the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation took the opening to criticize and offer their alternative:

Robert Rector, senior research fellow on welfare and family issues at the Heritage Foundation, says Clinton refuses to even acknowledge the two primary causes of child poverty — out-of-wedlock births, and parents living on welfare instead of working. “What she wants to do is combat poverty by putting the responsibility on the U.S. taxpayer, who already spends about $450 billion a year fighting poverty,” says Rector, “while [at the same time] specifically avoiding the issue of changing the behaviors that are the cause of poverty.”

See the problem?

The poverty debate provides a classic example of the imperative not to sacrifice our larger policy goals for the sake of an incremental or different advance, particularly when that advance actually undermines the shared agenda for the long term. By advancing a plan to set a target for cutting poverty, elected officials and candidates set up a problematic future, and one that threatens to undermine the policy goals.

Let’s imagine the likely scenario to come. Whether or not a candidate who has promised to set a goal to cut poverty wins the White House, we can expect continued efforts by some advocacy groups and members of Congress to push for the goal and the policy to match.

The mainstream media will portray the likely legislative options as two competing proposals: one we like (a comprehensive approach to addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one we don’t (solve poverty with marriage and harder work).

Our opponents are able to push these concepts with success because they are consistent with a broad public understanding of the causes of poverty, and a widely held belief that government programs cannot really address the issue of poverty or inequality. We already lost this same fight in battles over welfare. Why would we want to engage in it again?

We don’t need to re-fight that battle. We know that some people (democrats and low-income voters) are persuaded by a sympathy lens on the issue (the one that the word “poverty” calls up for many people in this country) to support a limited set of policies. Unfortunately, this language actually decreases support for progressive policies like a living wage.

Moreover, we also know that using an economic narrative moves these same voters and others (working-class, non college-educated men, older men, Republican voters, union households, and older voters without a college education) to support more of our policy goals.

So, if there is no true demand for a goal to cut poverty and it won’t help add new support, it would be much smarter strategically to use an economic case to promote the same larger policy agenda without the damaging poverty headline.

In fact, the Progressive Caucus members have proposals that would address poverty, social and economic mobility, and inequality that they’ve put under an economy title, the “Rebuild and Reinvest in America Initiative.” They should focus on this legislation and incorporate the “anti-poverty” agenda into that legislation.

Everyone who wants anti-poverty policy to be high on the agenda after the upcoming election should stop talking about goals to cut poverty and instead talk about an economy that will work for everyone.

Changing the way we start the conversation with others about this issue doesn’t mean we don’t care about the poor anymore or that our policy goals have to change at all. It’s just an acknowledgment that if we want to win, we have to change the narrative to one that works for us, and for more of the public too.

More on Clinton's "Poor" Plan

Monday, March 03, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

On the eve of “(Possibly) Decisive Tuesday”, whether a campaign sets a poverty goal probably doesn’t matter.

Yet, it’s helpful (for our work) to continue this dialogue about whether it was a good plan for Senator Clinton to announce her goal to cut poverty at all.

Is it a good strategy? Shawn suggests that Senator Clinton needed to have a plan in the primary and cites a Huffington Post commentary written by a former Edwards campaign staffer as evidence.

A few reactions:

  • Voters are not clamoring for this – even in the primary, and even in the hard hit areas of southeastern Ohio, where poverty rates are relatively high. In February, the Gallup Poll asked voters about “the most important problem facing the country” and just 2 percent named poverty/hunger/homelessness.


    The dynamic might (possibly!) be different if the primary had come down to a race between Clinton and Edwards. In that case, the target for cutting poverty might have been used by Edwards to illustrate a difference between the candidates. But, that isn’t where we ended up. Moreover, in that scenario, the campaign would likely have undermined the party and the policy goals…given what we know about opposition to the policies and voter preferences.

  • We know that some people (democrats and low-income voters) are persuaded by the sympathy frame (the one that the word “poverty” calls up for voters) to support a limited set of policies. But, this language actually decreases support for a living wage. Moreover, we also know that an economic lens moves these same voters and others to support more of our policy goals!

    So, if there is no true demand for a goal to cut poverty and it won’t help add new voters, why not use an economic case to promote the same larger policy agenda without a damaging poverty headline? (In fact, the Clinton campaign appears to have included most of the same policy in an earlier announcement about her economic plans.)
  • Why does this matter at all? Maybe it doesn’t. But, I’m afraid it could. And I’d prefer a candidate who is thinking beyond the next primary and stays focused on the goal of building political space and public will for the policy goals. Or at the very least, one who doesn’t take the risk of underming the policy in order to win.


    Some time ago, Rachel Gragg (one of inclusion’s co-founders) co-authored an article outlining a topic we’ve all discussed at length: the advantages of “winning by losing well.” The poverty debate provides a classic example of this imperative not to sacrifice our larger policy goals for the sake of an incremental or different advance, particularly when that advance actually undermines the shared agenda for the long term. By advancing a plan to set a target for cutting poverty, Senator Clinton sets up a problematic future, and one that threatens to undermine the policy goals.

    Let’s assume (for the sake of this posting) that Senator Clinton were to win the nomination. She could then be forced to campaign on her poverty goal in the general election. This would allow opponents to raise the arguments outlined by the Heritage Foundation in response to her announcement last week.

    And if she ended up in the White House, we can expect that some advocates would demand that she make good on her plan to call for a target to cut poverty. And that would likely fail, as we’ve outlined before. In the process – a lot of the policy we need to implement could be undermined by the debate over whether these policies are the ones our government should adopt to “cut poverty”.

No other leading candidate remaining the race has adopted a goal to cut poverty. I hope it stays that way.

Hillary Clinton's Poor Plan

Friday, February 29, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Senator Clinton announced her plan to cut poverty just days before the Ohio primary.

Why? Really, why does she think this will help her win – or help build public will for the policies she promotes: like a higher minimum wage, pre-K, improving child support collection, etc?

Her plan incorporates lots of ideas we’ve identified and include on our list of new ideas for good jobs: democratic workplaces, health care, paid family leave, etc. She also has a laundry list of additional good ideas that support economic and social mobility: expanding green jobs, more strategies for worker advancement, etc.

It’s so…. not cool…. that she put it all these great ideas under the poverty headline!

Using the poverty banner means it is unlikely that this plan will generate support. While lots of people want to do something about poverty—it’s not a high priority for voters.

I’ve written about this before.

  • The U.S. definition of poverty is out of date and flawed.
  • Public understanding of the causes of and remedies for poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
  • Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in the legislative debate. Media will portray the options as two competing proposals: one we like (comprehensive approach to addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one we don’t (solve poverty with marriage and harder work). We already lost that fight in battles over welfare. Why we would we want to engage in it again?

In fact, she gave the Heritage Foundation an opening:

Robert Rector, senior research fellow on welfare and family issues at the Heritage Foundation, says Clinton refuses to even acknowledge the two primary causes of child poverty — out-of-wedlock births, and parents living on welfare instead of working. “What she wants to do is combat poverty by putting the responsibility on the U.S. taxpayer, who already spends about $450 billion a year fighting poverty,” says Rector, “while [at the same time] specifically avoiding the issue of changing the behaviors that are the cause of poverty.”

See the problem?

We present these findings, and more, in a variety of media. Check out the newest version of The Mobility Agenda’s “New Lens on Policy”.

More on Insurance Mandates

Thursday, February 28, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Responding to a comment on my cross-posting about auto insurance mandates and uninsured rates at Talking Points Memo, I note that it’s important to know how states enforce the mandate. A commenter implied that there is almost no down side to going without auto insurance—especially if one is “judgment proof”.

Driving without insurance can be very costly. States impose penalties including license suspension, hefty fines, vehicle impoundment, and jail time.

It’s an unacknowledged reality of our labor market that most people must drive to work. Public transit just doesn’t work in most places or for many workers; less than 5 percent of workers commute using transit and many of those people live in Manhattan, Chicago, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. Thus, loss of license or car as a penalty for driving uninsured has a very high cost and it’s one most would avoid If they can.

There are certainly differences between auto and health insurance, yet there are still important lessons in the comparison.

Lessons from Car Insurance Mandates for the Candidates

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Senators Clinton and Obama are continuing the debate over how best to ensure that everyone has health insurance and access to care.

Some online analysts have raised questions about the effectiveness of mandates by reviewing car insurance mandates.

We have been spending some time looking at access to car insurance in our transportation research.

Car insurance is regulated by states. Only two states do not require drivers to maintain insurance – New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Yet, a recent report finds that nearly 15 percent of drivers across the nation are uninsured.

What happens in the two states without a mandate?

Wisconsin ranks 20th with about 14 percent uninsured, while New Hampshire has one of the lowest rates of all states at 9 percent. Other state rates range from 26 percent (Mississippi) to 4 percent (Maine).

Some writers have noted that California has a low-cost insurance option for low-wage workers. In that state, these writers point out, the uninsured rate is one of the highest at 25%.

We’ve interviewed some of the key actors implementing the California low-cost insurance option and find that there is a major problem with outreach and access. Most low-wage workers probably don’t even know about the option and the incentives don’t seem to be structured in a way that encourages brokers to sell it.

A number of people are working on improving knowledge and use of the low-cost option in California, but we should not assume that low-wage drivers wouldn’t buy it—-if they knew about it.

So, what do we know? A mandate does not guarantee universal coverage in this case. And creating and implementing a lower-cost insurance option for low-wage workers will require creativity, careful implementation, and outreach.

Edwards' Endorsement: It's Not the Poverty....

Friday, February 15, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Paul Krugman takes on poverty in his column. He’s highlighting new research about the impact of childhood poverty on “the American Dream”.

Unfortunately, while he had strong opinions about the impact of campaign promises on legislative debates over health care after the election, he doesn’t acknowledge what we know about public reaction to use of the language of poverty.

We’ve said it before:

  • The U.S. definition of poverty is out of date and flawed.
  • Public understanding of the causes of and remedies for poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
  • Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in the legislative debate. Media will portray the options as two competing proposals: one that's about our interdependence (comprehensive approach to addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one that's not (solve poverty with marriage and harder work). We already lost that fight in battles over welfare. Why we would we want to engage in it again?

We present these findings in a variety of media. Check out the newest version of The Mobility Agenda’s “New Lens on Policy”. We use this powerpoint several times a month (at least) for talks around the country with all kinds of stakeholders – academics, advocates, policymakers, elected officials, students, media, organizers, service providers, etc.

I learn with the audience too. A few weeks ago, I met with a class of NYU law students and one of them suggested some changes in the visual presentation that I promptly adopted.

The week before that, I met with community leaders from across the state of North Carolina. They discussed better ways to present information to decision makers based on the research I’d presented. They decided to illustrate systemic solutions like universal access to health care, retirement options for those without adequate employer-based options, and guaranteed paid sick days. These are three of the ideas identified in our scan on better jobs.

It was thrilling to hear that local leaders believe the ideas from our research also provide the best economic narratives as alternatives to the traditional sympathy storyline.

View “A New Lens on Policy”.

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National Review, Huckabee, Obama, and Social Inclusion

Saturday, January 12, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

John O’Sullivan, “a British conservative political commentator and journalist” (according to Wikipedia) writes about social inclusion as an emerging issue in the 2008 election in National Review magazine.

While I don’t agree with O’Sullivan’s description of the differences between the meaning intended by Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama with their inclusion themes, I found their post-Iowa caucus speeches more compelling than the other candidates'. And it's interesting to see someone inject a little inclusion into the campaign - by name.

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Clinton v. Obama: Do Words Matter?

Sunday, January 06, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

When friends and family ask me what I think about the pending Presidential election, I’ve often said that it won’t much matter which Democrat or Republican wins for policy outcomes over the next four years. That is, it may matter which party wins – but not so much which candidate. This seems particularly true on the Democratic side since the policy differences are minor between candidates and Congress will have an important say on priorities and in any major policy changes.

What matters more is how the President uses his moments on stage to set the tone for the policy debates of the future and to begin the hard work of rebuilding the image of government for our own residents, and of the United States for citizens of the world.

With this in mind, I am able to watch debates with relative ease, ignoring squabbles over minor differences in policy proposals, reading or doing other work with the debate playing in the background.

No wonder then that this exchange between Clinton and Obama toward the end of the New Hampshire debate caught my attention.

Do words matter?

Clinton: So, you know, words are not actions. And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action.

You know, what we've got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality. I have a long record of doing that, of taking on the very interests that you have just rightly excoriated because of the over-due influence that they have in our government.

....

OBAMA: Look, I think it's easy to be cynical and just say, You know what? It can't be done, because Washington is designed to resist change.

But in fact, there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better.

And I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes; not incremental changes, not small changes.
....

And, you know, so, the truth is, actually, words do inspire, words do help people get involved, words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health-care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy.

Don't discount that power.

Because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't.

I'm running for president because I want to tell them, Yes, we can, and that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.

I understand the point that Clinton makes here. No one wants a President who utters empty promises followed by deeds in the opposite direction. (Compassionate conservatism anyone?) But, neither do I want a President who undervalues the ability of words and message to inspire. Nor do I want a president who fails to understand the damage that can be done by using words that divide us.

Even those who share values and goals will choose different words to express those goals – and some words ARE better than others.

Consider one of President Clinton’s essential themes: If you work hard and play by the rules, you shouldn’t be poor. Who can disagree with this? We can understand the problem with this choice of words after living through the debate over welfare policy and reauthorization of the landmark bill Clinton signed. His choice of words to frame both welfare reform and employment benefits evoked and reinforced a dominant perception of our society – that people are poor precisely because they DO NOT work hard. Consequently, the welfare debate has been over whether or not people are working hard enough, not whether the labor market has jobs that make it possible for workers to escape poverty.

I don’t question whether President Clinton had the right goals. The original Clinton proposal for welfare reform is one I would (and did) support. But, because the legislative debate was conducted in the dominant and problematic frame, there was no way for his multi-faceted and nuanced proposal to prevail over one that focused on behavior and “personal responsibility”.

We’ve learned this lesson the hard way. And now we know to want a President who is thinking about the long-term impact of his (or her!) choice of words…a President who considers not only whether particular words can win the legislative debate of the moment, but who is always considering whether those words will also support a progressive policy agenda with broad appeal in the future.

In the New Hampshire debate, Clinton appeared to dismiss this concept, while Obama wasn’t afraid to defend the importance of words. He might have responded (as he did at other times in the debate) with a laundry list of policies that reflect his ability to “translate talk into action and feeling into reality”. Instead, eloquently and persuasively, he asked us not to discount the power of words.

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