Magazine article Policy & Practice

The Reality of Working Americans

Magazine article Policy & Practice

The Reality of Working Americans

Article excerpt

In the richest country in the world, one out of every four jobs pays less than poverty wages and lacks health care coverage, paid sick days, training and pensions. What makes this situation worse is that there is little opportunity for the workers in these jobs to move up into better jobs.

Most policy-makers look to improved skills as the answer to increased opportunity for these workers. Yet these jobs will be among those with the largest job growth in the years ahead. While improved skills are important, we need to do something about the quality of these jobs if we want to ensure that these workers have the means to support themselves and their families.

A great myth stands in the way--that the quality of jobs in our economy is a force of nature beyond our control.

But there is nothing inherently low-wage about these jobs. Similar service jobs in other industrialized countries pay significantly better and workers get health coverage, sick pay and vacations, according to recent reports by the Russell Sage Foundation's "Future of Work Project," because these countries have made different policy choices.

A job in manufacturing once practically guaranteed a hard-working American a good wage, decent health insurance and even a pension. Yet at one time, these jobs were hazardous, low-wage jobs that provided few benefits. Then these jobs became good jobs because we as Americans made them that way. Through unionization and social legislation, the wages and benefits of these manufacturing jobs improved.

Now we need to do the same thing with the jobs that can't be shipped overseas: in home health care, hotels, child care and security.

Fortunately, there are a few simple ways to ensure that our economic growth and profitability translate into better lives for working Americans:

Step 1: Raise and index the minimum wage. Our nation established a federal minimum wage in 1938 because we believed in the basic human dignity of work. Our failure to raise it undermines that cherished value and keeps Americans in poverty rather than raising them out of it. Even when it reaches $7.25 in July 2009, it will still be worth less than $2.00 in value than it was worth in 1968 dollars. We need to raise the minimum wage and index it so the most vulnerable workers do not become a political football that undermines their ability to make ends meet. …

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