America’s middle class is in sharp decline, and many people are falling into a state of poverty. For readers who have the time and inclination, it’s worth reading up on some of the commentary about the economic times in which we live.
I’ve gathered and excerpted news reports and analyses from assorted newspapers, periodicals, and online sites, representing varied economic and political perspectives. While they may not be in agreement on the solutions, they share a sense of alarm over jobs, the economy, and growing inequality.
Sabrina Tavernise reports on the latest economic census data (link here):
Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.
…Economists pointed to a telling statistic: It was the first time since the Great Depression that median household income, adjusted for inflation, had not risen over such a long period, said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard.
“This is truly a lost decade,” Mr. Katz said. “We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”
David DeGraw pulls together an assortment of economic trends and data (link here) that illustrate our perilous times. Here are 1o of them:
- “More Americans ‘double up’ and share homes in tough economy”
- “There’s No Bottom In Sight For Plummeting Home Prices”
- “Unemployed face tough competition: underemployed”
- “A smaller share of men have jobs today than at any time since World War II”
- “U.S. Consumers’ Credit Card Debt Rapidly Increasing”
- “Student Loan Default Rates Rise Sharply in Past Year”
- “Food prices stay near record high”
- “Median Male Worker Makes Less Now Than 43 Years Ago – Women Make 65% of what Median Male Makes”
- “Analysis: $35 trillion pension funds in new crisis as deficit hole grows”
- “Number of uninsured climbs to highest figure since passage of Medicare, Medicaid”
The AP’s David Crary brings together the work of a team of reporters who traveled the nation in search of stories depicting the impact of the economic meltdown (link here, via San Francisco Chronicle), and in the lede he opens with one of them:
At a food pantry in a Chicago suburb, a 38-year-old mother of two breaks into tears.
She and her husband have been out of work for nearly two years. Their house and car are gone. So is their foothold in the middle class and, at times, their self-esteem.
“It’s like there is no way out,” says Kris Fallon.
Unfortunately, hard times apparently aren’t making us a kinder, gentler nation:
The Pew Research Center said its recent polling shows that a majority of Americans — for the first time in 15 years of being surveyed on the question — oppose more government spending to help the poor.
Don Peck, author of Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Future & What We Can Do About It (2011), notes that, on the whole, America’s wealthiest have done OK during the meltdown (link here):
It’s hard to miss just how unevenly the Great Recession has affected different classes of people in different places. From 2009 to 2010, wages were essentially flat nationwide—but they grew by 11.9 percent in Manhattan and 8.7 percent in Silicon Valley. . . . In Miami and Detroit, by contrast, for every job posting, six people were unemployed. In March, the national unemployment rate was 12 percent for people with only a high-school diploma, 4.5 percent for college grads, and 2 percent for those with a professional degree.
Peck acknowledges that the “post-war decades of the 20th century were unusually hospitable to the American middle class.” That has changed significantly, he observes, especially for those whose education and experience place them outside of America’s professional ranks:
The strongest forces of our time are naturally divisive; absent a wide-ranging effort to constrain them, economic and cultural polarization will almost surely continue. Perhaps the nonprofessional middle class is rich enough today to absorb its blows with equanimity. Perhaps plutonomy, in the 21st century, will prove stable over the long run.
But few Americans, no matter their class, will be eager for that outcome.
In August, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich called for an ambitious jobs program to revive the economy and get people back to work (link here). He summarized recent developments this way:
Combine the budget cuts state and local governments continue to make with the slowdown in consumer spending, the reluctance of businesses to expand or hire, and the magnitude of unemployment and under-employment, and you need a big new booster rocket.
He offered a list of recommendations that included the following, some of which have appeared, more or less, in the President’s “American Jobs Act”:
1. Exempt first $20K of income from payroll taxes for two years. Make up shortfall by raising ceiling on income subject to payroll taxes.
2. Recreate the WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps to put long-term unemployed directly to work.
3. Create an infrastructure bank authorized to borrow $300 billion a year to repair and upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, ports, airports, school buildings, and water and sewer systems.
Matthew Bishop, in a wide-ranging survey linking jobs and the economy (link here), closes by identifying responses that mix education & training, less government regulation, direct subsidies & health care for workers:
The mismatch between the skills demanded by employers and those available in the market is a reflection both of bad choices by students, who have not thought hard enough about what will help them find a good job, and of education systems that are too often indifferent to the needs of the labour market and too slow to change even if they try.
A second challenge is for governments to create the right conditions for businesses to create more jobs. That means running sustainable macroeconomic policies…; sensible regulation; and a tax system that is both competitive, with low marginal rates, and does not distort business decisions in arbitrary ways.
Long-term unemployment often turns into permanent unemployment, so governments should aim to keep people in work, even if that sometimes means continuing to pay them benefits as they work. Health care and pension systems should be (re-)designed to allow workers as much flexibility as possible, not least in deciding when to retire.
Drake Bennett examines the role of retraining programs in matching unemployed workers with available jobs (link here):
Even with 14 million Americans looking for work—and at least 2.6 million wanting work but not actively searching—jobs are going unfilled. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the total number of openings at 3.2 million, and despite the flood of applicants, companies sometimes struggle to find candidates that fit.
Some claim that job training puts the onus on the individual worker for not having the right skills or education. However, notes Bennett:
The response to this, from the teachers, companies, and politicians who run and support training programs—and from some of the job seekers who put their faith in them—is that the case for training is only partly about the current bleak employment picture. It’s also about preparing for the sort of jobs the economy will add when it finally recovers and equipping students with skills that are rarely, if ever, taught in today’s classrooms.
Labor educator and lawyer Katherine Sciacchitano (link here) introduces her piece with a short Q&A:
Riddle 1: When is a recovery not a recovery?
Answer: When profits are at record levels, corporations are sitting on $1.7 trillion in cash, and unemployment is still at 9.2% and rising.
Riddle 2: When is a stimulus not a stimulus?
Answer: When it’s less than one-fourth the size of the hole in the economy it is intended to fill.
Riddle 3: When will it be possible to rebuild the economy?
Answer: When the U.S. labor movement joins with community and international labor allies to demand global economic development, jobs, and rising wages.
She posits that in order to forge a resurgent labor movement, we need to unlearn what we have been taught about free market economic policies:
The hard part will be unlearning the indoctrination we’ve received about the crisis, the role of government in the economy, and the free market. Once we do that, we can build successful movements at home and abroad. We’re closer than we think to the army of rank-and-file economists that we need.