Last week CNN triumphantly reported that the job market has recovered to its 2008 peak. Here’s the headline:
Not so fast, though.
Sociologist Philip Cohen observes that the real news is hidden in the fourth paragraph. There the author of the piece acknowledges that the job data are numbers, not proportions. The numbers have bounced back but, because of the addition of almost 12 million people to the U.S. population, the percent of Americans who have jobs or are in school remains lower than it was in 2008.
Given population growth over the last four years, the economy still needs more jobs to truly return to a healthy place. How many more? A whopping 7 million, calculates Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute.
Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cohen offers us a clearer look at where we’re at:
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
The Nation sparked a robust discussion last week with its incisive online conversation, Does Feminism Have a Class Problem? The panelists addressed the “Lean In” phenomenon, articulating how and why Sheryl Sandberg’s focus on self-improvement – rather than structural barriers and collective action to overcome them – angered quite a few feminists on the left.
While women of different economic backgrounds face many different realities, they also share similar work-life balance struggles. In that vein, the discussants argue that expanding family-friendly workplace policies – which would improve the lives of working women up and down the economic ladder – could help bridge the feminist class divide.
A growing body of research indicates that there are few other interventions that improve the economic prospects and work-life balance of women workers as much as unions do. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which I co-authored with my colleagues Janelle Jones and John Schmitt, shows just how much of a boost unions give to working women’s pay, benefits and workplace flexibility.
For example, all else being equal, women in unions earn an average of 13 percent – that’s about $2.50 per hour – more than their non-union counterparts. In other words, unionization can raise a woman’s pay as much as a full year of college does. Unions also help move us closer to equal pay: a study by the National Women’s Law Center determined that the gender pay gap for union workers is only half of what it is for those not in unions.
Unionized careers tend to come with better health and retirement benefits, too. CEPR finds that women in unions are 36 percent more likely to have health insurance through their jobs – and a whopping 53 percent more likely to participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
Unions also support working women at those crucial times when they need time off to care for themselves or their families. Union workplaces are 16 percent more likely to allow medical leave and 21 percent more likely to offer paid sick leave. Companies with unionized employees are also 22 percent more likely to allow parental leave, 12 percent more likely to offer pregnancy leave, and 19 percent more likely to let their workers take time off to care for sick family members.
Women make up almost half of the union workforce and are on track to be in the majority by 2025. As women are overrepresented in the low-wage jobs that are being created in this precarious economy – they are 56.4% of low-wage workers and over half of fast food workers – unions are leading and supporting many of the campaigns to improve their situations. In an important sense, the union movement already is a women’s movement.
Education and skills can get women only so far. It’s a conundrum that women have surpassed men when it comes to formal schooling, yet women have made little progress catching up on pay. Many women who do everything right — getting more education and skills — still find themselves with low wages and no benefits.
With unions already playing a central role in helping to meet the needs working women and their families in the 21st century economy, anyone concerned about the well-being of women should also care about unions.
Mean and median are two measures of “average.” The mean is the average as we typically think of it: the sum of things divided by the total number of things. The median, in contrast, is literally the number in the middle if we align all the quantities in order. People often use median instead of mean because it is insensitive to extreme outliers which may skew the mean in one direction or another.
For a quick illustration of the difference, I often use the example of income. I choose a plausible average (mean) for the classroom population and review the math. “If Bill Gates walks into the room,” I say, “the average income is now in the billions. The median hasn’t moved, but the mean has gone way up.” So has the Gini coefficient.
Here’s a more realistic and global illustration – the net worth of people in the wealthier countries. The U.S. ranks fourth in mean worth – $301,000 per person…
…but the median is far lower – $45,000, 19th out of the twenty nations shown. (The graph is from Credit Suisse via CNN.)
The U.S. is a wealthy nation compared with others, but “average” Americans, in the way that term is generally understood, are poorer than their counterparts in other countries.
I’d hope that someone who has written a book about “What Shapes Our Fortunes” would have had Sociology 101 where he would have learned the fundamentally different ways that income and wealth work in our economy. But apparently not.
In Rags to Riches to Rags Again, Mark Rank writes that because of a great deal of turbulence in household earning over a lifetime “we have much more in common with one another than we dare to realize.”
One of the reasons for such fluidity at the top is that, over sufficiently long periods of time, most American households go through a wide range of economic experiences, both positive and negative. Individuals we interviewed spoke about hitting a particularly prosperous period where they received a bonus, or a spouse entered the labor market, or there was a change of jobs. These are the types of events that can throw households above particular income thresholds.
Ultimately, this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income. It suggests that the United States is indeed a land of opportunity, that the American dream is still possible — but that it is also a land of widespread poverty. And rather than being a place of static, income-based social tiers, America is a place where a large majority of people will experience either wealth or poverty — or both — during their lifetimes.
All together now: Income, that comes in *household* paychecks, regardless of how many earners are contributing to that household income, is not wealth. Wealth is how much money a household has in the bank and in investments and the assets they own, like real estate, businesses, land, cars, boats, and planes.
Wealth inequality is much greater than income inequality. It looks like this:
And breaking it down by race:
It is no small thing for any household to attain an annual income of a million dollars for even one year.
But it is an entirely different experience to have enough wealth that one can no longer worry about income at all, can work the tax system to mask enormous amounts of income, can essentially withdraw from everyday contact with everyday Americans, can use one’s wealth to leverage political and economic power, and can know that the children in one’s household will never, ever want for a thing.
The “1%” was never about income alone.
Jane Van Galen, PhD, is a professor of education at the University of Washington, Bothell. Her research focus is on socioeconomic class, education, and digital media. She writes for Education and Class, where this post originally appeared.
How do people in the U.S. become wealthy? According to the myth of meritocracy, they do so by hard work: blood, sweat, tears, a trace of talent, and a tad bit of luck. This is the story told in this two-page ad for U.S. Trust in The New Yorker:
On the first page we learn she’s rich, but she’s still a home-town girl at heart. On the second page, we learn a little about how she might have gotten so wealthy:
Note the first few sentences:
Who’s to say how it happened. A big idea. A gutsy work ethic. A lucky break here and there.
Well, uh…what about, “She inherited it”? That’s a pretty common way to end up with a whole bunch of houses and in need of a wealth management team.
The notion that rich people are rich because their parents are rich, however, interrupts the American mystique, the one where we are a country of self-made immigrants who pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. People, even people who inherited wealth, like to think that they’re rich because they worked hard. Hence, the romanticization of the self-made millionaire in the ad and the corresponding invisibility of the inheritance loophole.
On the flipside, this narrative also supports the converse idea that the poor are poor because of their lack of personal efforts and merits. Perhaps they didn’t have a “big idea’ or the “gutsy work ethic” that enabled them to profit from the lucky break that they inevitably encountered, right?
This ad is just one drop in the sea of propaganda that makes it seem right and normal that a small proportion of our population is able to hoard wealth and property.
This post originally appeared in 2008.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
We have the money and the know how to tackle most of our social problems. Certainly unemployment, houselessness, and poverty. So, why don’t we?
In large part it is because our socially created wealth remains outside social control. Critical economic decisions are driven by private interests not the public good. One result is hipster economics.
On May 16, an artist, a railway service and a government agency spent $291,978 to block poverty from the public eye.
Called psychylustro, German artist Katharina Grosse’s project is a large-scale work designed to distract Amtrak train riders from the dilapidated buildings and fallen factories of north Philadelphia. The city has a 28 percent poverty rate – the highest of any major U.S. city – with much of it concentrated in the north. In some north Philadelphia elementary schools, nearly every child is living below the poverty line.
Grosse partnered with the National Endowment of the Arts and Amtrak to mask North Philadelphia’s hardship with a delightful view. The Wall Street Journalcalls this “Fighting Urban Blight With Art.” Liz Thomas, the curator of the project, calls it “an experience that asks people to think about this space that they hurtle through every day.”
The project is not actually fighting blight, of course – only the ability of Amtrak customers to see it.
“I need the brilliance of colour to get close to people, to stir up a sense of life experience and heighten their sense of presence,” Grosse proclaims.
“People,” in Grosse and Thomas’s formulation, are not those who actually live in north Philadelphia and bear the brunt of its burdens. “People” are those who can afford to view poverty through the lens of aesthetics as they pass it by.
Urban decay becomes a set piece to be remodeled or romanticised.
In a fancy bit of marketing, U.S. capitalists have been reborn as “job creators.” As such, they were rewarded with lower taxes, weaker labor laws, and relaxed government regulation. However, despite record profits, their job creation performance leaves a lot to be desired.
According to the official data the last U.S. recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. Thus, we have officially been in economic expansion for almost five years. The gains from the expansion should be strong and broad-based enough to ensure real progress for the majority over the course of the business cycle. If not, it’s a sign that we need a change in our basic economic structure. In other words, it would be foolish to work to sustain an economic structure that was incapable of satisfying majority needs even when it was performing well according to its own logic.
A recent study by the National Employment Law Project titled The Low-Wage Recovery provides one indicator that it is time for us to pursue a change. It shows that the current economic expansion is transitioning the U.S. into a low wage economy.
The figure below shows the net private sector job loss by industries classified according to their medium wage from January 2008 to February 2010 and the net private sector job gain using the same classification from March 2010 to March 2014. As we can see, the net job loss in the first period was greatest in high wage industries and the net job creation in the second period was greatest in low wage industries.
As the study explains:
The food services and drinking places, administrative and support services (includes temporary help), and retail trade industries are leading private sector job growth during the recent recovery phase. These industries, which pay relatively low wages, accounted for 39 percent of the private sector employment increase over the past four years.
If the hard times of recession disproportionately eliminate high wage jobs and the “so called” good times of recovery bring primarily low wage jobs, it is time to move beyond our current focus on the business cycle and initiate a critical assessment of the way our economy operates and in whose interest.