Low-wage workers in the United States are gripped by increasing financial insecurity as they inch along an economic tightrope made riskier by pervasive job losses and rising prices. Many struggle to pay for life's basics -- housing, food and health care -- and most report having virtually no financial cushion should they stumble.This is the first part of what will be a series examining the lives, struggles, hopes, and dreams of a segment of America that is often invisible. These are the people who stock our supermarket shelves, take care of the sick in hospitals, work in day care centers, do our nails, staff reception desks in offices, work on our factory assembly lines, and do clerical and administration work in offices. The survey, which interviews many of these people, was a joint effort, conducted by the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University. Most of the people who participated in the study work less than 30 hours a week and make $27,000 or less.
Still, they remain inspired by the American dream, with most saying they are more apt to move up economically than slip backward even if they are frustrated now. Most also expect better for their children.
Here's more from The Washington Post:
These low-wage workers account for nearly one-quarter of all U.S. adults. They care for the elderly in nursing homes or for the very young in day-care centers. They stock store shelves, do administrative work in offices, staff reception desks in hospitals and man assembly lines in factories. Not only do they receive low pay, but their jobs frequently come with no health-care coverage, vacations or even sick days. Yet, the vast majority said they like or even love their jobs and they believe in the power of hard work to transform lives.Ms. Shulman is right. For too long in our country work has not been rewarded as well as investment income has. And our system has become a zero sum game where winner takes all rather than an acknowledgement that we are all in this life together.
The two major presidential candidates and members of Congress have largely turned their attention to middle-class Americans, whose anxiety is rising as the national economy falters on falling housing prices, tightening credit and rising inflation.
"A lot of issues that have long confronted low-wage workers are now increasingly facing middle-income workers," who more than ever face the prospect of jarring income declines, and the lack of health care and pensions to support them, said Beth Shulman, a scholar with the Russell Sage Foundation's Future of Work Project.
If those growing concerns translate into political action to bolster the social safety net, she said, it would disproportionately help low-wage workers. "I don't think we want to live in a country where people are working and doing what they are supposed to do but yet they can't get the basics," Shulman said.
For many low-wage workers, financial struggles persist and anxiety is high even when the economy is humming. Most of them occupy an uneasy and often overlooked place on the nation's economic spectrum, hovering above poverty but still grasping for the relative comfort of the middle class.
Certainly, there will always be some economic inequity. Nobody can promise a society where all are exactly alike or equal in earning power. And nobody would want that because it would rob people of incentive as well as a sense of accomplishment when they succeed.
I think, however, that we can do better than widening gap of inequality that we now have. The new Gilded Age. People who work hard and play by the rules should indeed have a basic social safety net below which they cannot fall. Their children should enjoy adequate health care and access to a decent education. And they deserve a truly level playing field. We cannot guarantee an equal outcome for all but we certainly should see that there is equal opportunity and that basic human needs for health care, food, shelter, and education are met.
More and more people are starting to realize this as the Conservative movement cracks along a fault line caused by its own failures. In another essay in Sunday's Post, Greg Anrig writes:
At long last, the conservative juggernaut is cracking up. From the Reagan era until late 2005 or so, conservatives crushed progressives like me in debates as reliably as the Harlem Globetrotters owned the Washington Generals. The right would eloquently praise the virtues of free markets and the magic of the invisible hand. We would respond by stammering about the importance of regulation and a mixed economy, knowing even as the words came out that our audience was becoming bored.And
The single theme that most animated the modern conservative movement was the conviction that government was the problem and market forces the solution. It was a simple, elegant, politically attractive idea, and the right applied it to virtually every major domestic challenge -- retirement security, health care, education, jobs, the environment and so on. Whatever the issue, conservatives proposed substituting market forces for government -- pushing the bureaucrats aside and letting private-sector competition work to everyone's benefit.The article goes on to discuss some younger conservatives who recognize the problem in their movement. Ross Douthat and Raihan Salam have written a book, The Grand New Party, where they reject the extremes of the Grover Norquist, Ronald Reagan ideology that government is the problem. Instead, they insist that while government should be small, there is a role for a well run government.
So they advocated creating health savings accounts, handing out school vouchers, privatizing Social Security, shifting government functions to private contractors, and curtailing regulations on public health, safety, the environment and more. And, of course, they pushed to cut taxes to further weaken the public sector by "starving the beast." President Bush has followed this playbook more closely than any previous president, including Reagan, notwithstanding today's desperate efforts by the right to distance itself from the deeply unpopular chief executive.
But in practice, those ideas have all failed to deliver on the promises the conservatives made, and in many instances, the dogma has actually created new problems. Particularly after Hurricane Katrina, when Americans saw how hapless the Federal Emergency Management Agency was, the public has begun to realize that the right's hostility toward government has produced only ineffective government.
One can see the results in recent headlines: a Justice Department where non-conservatives need not apply; tainted spinach, jalapeño peppers and pet food; dangerous imported toys; poorly enforced environmental laws and a warming planet; the regulatory failures that led to the subprime mortgage fiasco. Meanwhile, large tax cuts (as under Reagan) have weakened the country's fiscal health without significantly improving the lot of the vast majority of citizens. And the right's enthusiasm for Bush's brand of "benevolent hegemony" in foreign policy, which insists on the U.S. right to wage preventive war and dismisses the United Nations as a band of meddlesome bureaucrats, has weakened our security -- most notably through the unnecessary calamity in Iraq -- by diluting our military capabilities and diverting their focus from genuine threats from al-Qaeda.
Unfortunately, Douthat and Salam have two problems. One is the resistance from fellow conservatives who still can't recognize that the market simply can't solve every social problem. It's pretty good at doing what it's intended to do, but it's reductionist silliness to think its a panacea for every ill.
The other problem is that progressives have them beat in making a credible argument for good government that helps people. After all, we've been making that argument for years.