Posts Tagged ‘workers’


According to the Century Foundation’s analysis of the latest Occupational Employment Statistics report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about a quarter of U.S. workers are working full-time, year-round in occupations where they cannot expect to earn enough to keep a family of four above poverty.

The chart above shows median wages for the 30 lowest-paying occupations with over 250,000 employees, which collectively employ 31 million people nationally. All the occupations on the list have annual median wages that fall at or below the poverty level for a family of four ($24,250). At the very bottom are America’s 3.1 million food preparation workers, who earn just $18,410 annually. That’s $8.85 an hour.

The occupations with the largest employment in May 2014 were retail salespersons and cashiers. These two occupations combined made up nearly 6 percent of total U.S. employment, with employment levels of 4.6 million and 3.4 million, respectively. Of the 10 largest occupations (which accounted for 21 percent of total employment in May 2014), only registered nurses, with an annual median wage of $66,640, had an average wage above the U.S. all-occupations median of $34,540.

As the Century Foundation reminds us,

Many of these jobs are simple, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. Many are commonplace, but that doesn’t make them dispensable. Rather, in our haste to dismiss basic as beneath us, we lose sight of the fact that what is basic is also fundamental, what is mundane is also essential. These jobs matter—they are the substance of simple pleasures, the foundation of daily joys—and they mean more to our interpersonal well-being than any amount of high-flying CEOs ever will. But by labeling its practitioners as “low skill,” we rationalize relegating them to near-poverty wages.

The stark facts collected by the BLS also remind us that, when large numbers of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work, the wages many U.S. workers receive force them and their families to live in or within striking distance of destitution.


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There are two different ways of reading the information in the chart above.*

One way is that the various programs associated with the War on Poverty have succeeded, at least to some extent. That success can be seen in the difference between the “market poverty” rate (technically, the pretax/pretransfer anchored supplemental poverty rate) of 28.7 percent in 2012 and the “poverty rate with government programs” (technically, the anchored supplemental poverty rate) of 16 percent. Many fewer people are living at or below the poverty line with government transfers and tax credits than if those programs had not existed.

But there’s a second way of reading the chart: capitalism in the United States produces poverty at just about the same rate today (at 28.7 percent) as it did back in 1967 (when 27 percent of the U.S. population lived at or below the market poverty rate)—which makes it all that much more difficult for government transfers and credits to “solve” the problem of poverty. Thus, the War on Poverty still leaves 16 percent of Americans in poverty.

The conclusion, if we combine the two readings, is that the publicly provided social safety net (which lowered the poverty rate by some 40 percent in 2012) is actually a subsidy to large corporations, which continue to pay very low wages to millions of American workers and thus to generate enormous profits they alone appropriate and decide how to use.

The real War on Poverty will only begin when we decide to change how the economy itself is organized.

*The chart is from a column by Thomas B. Edsall, based on data presented in a paper by Christopher Wimer et al. (pdf).


That’s right: even as the United States is producing more cars than ever, U.S. (and Canadian) workers have never made so few of the parts that go into making those cars.

As the Wall Street Journal explains, this trend casts a long shadow over the much-vaunted comeback of U.S. car manufacturing.

As the inflow of low-cost foreign parts accelerates, wages at the entry level are drifting away from the generous compensation packages that made car-factory jobs the prize of American manufacturing.

At an American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. car-parts factory in Three Rivers, some new hires are paid as little as about $10 an hour, roughly equivalent to what the local Wal-Mart will pay. John Childers, a 38-year-old assembly-line stocker, said he is grateful for the job but finds it tough to get by on the money he and his fiancée make at the plant.

“Lower class is what we are,” he says. “Let’s be honest.”

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Larry Rohter’s interview with Sebastião Salgado (whose work I have discussed before, here and here) includes an important exchange about the role Salgado’s previous study of economics has played in his photography.

Q. Wim Wenders makes a very interesting observation in the film, saying that your training as an economist helped prepare you for the kind of photography you do. Do you think that’s true? Did it help, and if so, in what way?

A. Yes, it helped. In reality, when you consider a photographer, he’s the fruit of his heritage. My visual heritage comes from the mountains where I grew up and a lot of my intellectual heritage from having been an economist. The economics I did was not the economics of business administration, it’s not micro. I did macroeconomics — the economics of public finances, political economy, I studied Marx and Keynes. In reality, that kind of economics is a kind of quantified sociology, so that kind of preparation gave me a real training. I had to study, I had to read a lot of philosophy, political science, I had to read a whole bunch of things that gave me a solid grounding, and that was something fabulous.

So when I became a photographer, I had a series of instruments for analysis and synthesis, and clearly all of that helped me.

Salgado’s answer has two important implications—one concerning the liberal arts, the other economics. The point about the liberal arts is that we’re teaching students how to think, not providing them job skills. As they acquire the ability to think critically about the world around them, as they develop an intellectual foundation to grapple with new and old ideas and challenge the existing common senses, they can decide how they’re going to leave their mark on the world. Along the way, of course, they’re going to have to figure out how to earn a living—to put a roof over their heads, pay for their food and clothing, and so on—but that’s not the goal or aim of their liberal arts education. Clearly, Salgado’s studies of economics didn’t direct him to a career as an economist but, instead, gave him some of the intellectual tools he could later use as a “photographer without adjectives.”

But it’s also clear that Salgado’s involvement with economics is not the same as many students today have. It’s much closer to what I had in college and graduate school, and continue to try to provide to my students in the classroom (even when I teach microeconomics). He studied Marx and Keynes, he read philosophy and political science, he was exposed to economics he refers to as “a kind of quantified sociology.” That’s certainly not what many of my colleagues in economics are doing to students today. They build formal mathematical models, which the undergraduate and graduate students are never taught to think about critically let alone question. They teach students the conclusions of the models but never the underlying assumptions. As a result, students learn how to manipulate the equations (at least well enough to pass the exams) but not how to relate those models to what they’ve learned elsewhere in the liberal arts or to consider what other kinds of economic theories and models might be used to make sense of what is going on in the world.

In both those senses, many students today—in the liberal arts generally, and perhaps especially in economics—are simply not being given the “instruments for analysis and synthesis” Sebastião Salgado acquired in his early intellectual formation. Our students may be able to take lots of pictures but I worry they’re being denied the opportunity of becoming great photographers.


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