March 17, 2020
Privilege in the Age of the Coronavirus
I appreciate how privileged my husband and I are that we are able to remain in our home, where we feel fairly safe.
He is a retired Boston high school teacher. I have a good job that also provides me with some degree of flexibility when needed, and my boss didn’t resist, because of my autoimmune condition, when I asked to work at home early last week.
A young couple in my condo building with a new baby fled last weekend to a relative’s house in rural Connecticut, where the husband will be able to telecommute to his high-paying job in Boston.
Yes, our 401(k)s are getting pummeled. But this national crisis is immediate and far more consequential for the millions of Americans who must work even in a pandemic. Workers have two concerns, and they are intertwined: health and money.
Think about the first responders, service-industry workers, or post office employees who are in contact with the public, constantly exposing themselves and, as a result, their families to the coronavirus.
Low-income people are also very vulnerable. Research shows that they are less healthy for reasons ranging from less access to employer health insurance to higher rates of smoking and obesity. Diabetes is more pervasive in low-income populations too.
Yet public health officials tell us that people with underlying conditions are far more vulnerable to getting seriously ill if they contract the virus – and these are the same people who usually don’t have the luxury to telecommute. Many low-income workers also live in crowded conditions, often with older relatives in fragile health.
Many workers are grappling with the realization that the economy is starting to slow down – and they will be the first to feel it. Consider the cleaning ladies or dog walkers whose clients are asking them not to come to the house this week or the servers at the restaurants shutting down in Manhattan, Massachusetts, Illinois, and across the nation. …Learn More
August 6, 2019
People in their Prime are Working Less
The decline in Americans’ labor force activity started around the year 2000 and accelerated after the 2008-2009 recession. Labor force participation is now at its lowest level since the 1970s.
The main reason for the drop is our aging population. But the news in a systematic review of current research in this area is a more troubling trend that’s also driving it: people in their prime working years – ages 25 through 54 – are falling out of the labor force.
Prime-age men are the most active members of the labor force. Yet in 2017, only 89.1 percent of them were either working or seeking a job, down from 91.5 percent in 2000, according to the review by University of Southern California economists.
Prime-age women’s labor force activity also fell, to 75.2 percent in 2017 from about 77 percent in 2000. This decline ends decades in which women were streaming into the nation’s workplaces at an increasing rate. One possible reason for the leveling off is the scarcity of family-friendly policies, including more generous childcare assistance.
The forces pushing and pulling various groups in and out of the labor force make it difficult to pin down the primary reasons for the overall drop in participation. The decline among prime-age men and women may be tied to opioid addiction, alcoholism, and suicide. Other studies point to the surge in incarcerations of black men.
And while technological advances like robots and growing trade with China have increased the need for many highly skilled workers, they have reduced the demand for less-educated, lower-paid people, including U.S. factory workers, in their peak working years. The resulting fall in their wages has also made work less attractive to them. …Learn More
July 30, 2019
Why are White Americans’ Deaths Rising?
Rarely does academic research make a splash with the general public like this did. A grim 2015 study, prominently displayed in The New York Times, showed death rates increasing among middle-aged white Americans and blamed so-called “deaths of despair” like opioid addiction, suicide, and liver disease.
Rising mortality, especially for white people with low levels of education, ran counter to the falling death rates the researchers found for Hispanic and black Americans. The husband and wife team who did the study proposed that “economic insecurity” might be an avenue for research into the root cause of white Americans’ deaths of despair.
A 2018 study took up where they left off and found a connection between economic conditions and some types of deaths. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Claremont Graduate University, and the Urban Institute said poor economic conditions – in the form of local employment losses – have played a role in the rising deaths since 1990 from chronic health problems like cardiovascular disease, particularly among 45 to 54 year olds with a high school education or less. However, they could not establish a connection to the rise in deaths of despair.
In a 2019 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, these same researchers instead focused on what is driving the growing educational disparity in life expectancy trends among whites: life expectancy is rising for those with more education but stagnating or falling for less-educated whites.
As for the health reasons behind this, they found that chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and even cancer are critical to explaining less-educated whites’ life expectancy, and they warned against putting too much emphasis on deaths of despair. In the medical literature, they noted, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers are consistently linked to the “wear and tear” on the body’s systems due to the stress that disadvantaged Americans experience over decades, because they earn less and face adversities ranging from a lack of opportunities and inadequate medical care to substandard living environments. …Learn More
January 22, 2019
A Taste of How the 1 Percent Lives
The dramatic increase in U.S. inequality is due almost entirely to the expanding fortunes of the
1 percent. They have tripled their share of the nation’s total wealth to 21 percent since the 1970s.
Such extreme concentrations of wealth are of growing concern to economists and even one Wall Street firm. They argue that it hurts the economy for everyone.
The public’s reaction couldn’t be more different. Their preferred solution to barely coping financially is to become rich themselves. Two out of three Americans told Gallup they aspire to being rich and say that the super-wealthy are good for the country. Democrats and Republicans are equally enamored of the rich.
What it means to be in the top 1 percent is, for most of us, an abstraction since the wealthy largely keep to their own. But the crew of the Double Sunshine tour boat are happy to show tourists the lifestyles of Florida’s rich and famous during daily tours of the dolphins and multimillion-dollar mansions on Naples Bay.
During my Christmastime tour of the bay, the crew pointed out one property where the new owner had demolished a $49 million house to build a new one. “Tear-downs are on a tear,” says The Naples Daily News, which closely follows the real estate transactions of celebrities and chief executives.
In property after property, royal palms sway over lawns that tumble into the bay. Every house has a yacht or an empty boat slip with a full crew awaiting the owner’s return, said Greg Dyer, the tour boat company’s assistant operations director. One homeowner pays nearly $600,000 a year in property taxes. No wonder Naples has such great bike paths. …Learn More
August 30, 2018
Why US Workers Have Lost Leverage
A 1970 contract negotiation between GE and its unionized workforce is unimaginable today.
A strike then slowed production for months at 135 factories around the country. With inflation running at 6 percent annually, the company offered pay raises of 3 percent to 5 percent a year for three years. The union rejected the offer, and a federal mediator was brought in. GE eventually agreed to a minimum 25 percent pay raise over 40 months.
“They said we couldn’t, but we damn sure did it,” one staffer said about his union’s victory.
Former Wall Street Journal editor Rick Wartzman tells this story in his book about the rise and fall of American workers through the labor relations that have played out at corporate stalwarts like GE, General Motors, and Walmart.
Critics use examples like GE to argue that unions had it too good – and they have a point. But that’s old news. What’s relevant today is that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and blue-collar and middle-class Americans seem barely able to keep their heads above water even in a long-running economic boom.
New York University economist Edward Wolff in a January report estimated that workers lost much ground in the 2008 recession and never recovered. The typical family’s net worth, adjusted for inflation, is no higher than it was in 1983 and far below the pre-recession peak. Granted, workers’ wages have gone up recently, though barely faster than inflation, but they had been flat for 15 years. Workers are also funding more of their retirement and health insurance.
Wartzman’s theme in “The End of Loyalty: the Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America” is that the system no longer works for regular people, because companies have weakened or broken the social contract they once had with their workers.
The loss of employer loyalty is one way to look at the state of labor today. The loss of workers’ leverage against global corporations is another. …Learn More