The 'Good-Jobs' Challenge

Aug 31, 2012

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Every month when the unemployment figures are released, journalists, policymakers, and advocates alike eagerly check to see whether the number has moved up or down.  But the unemployment rate is just one indicator of the strength of our labor market.  As we celebrate Labor Day, we need to pay attention not just to the number of jobs, but to their quality.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project finds that, two years into the recovery, the majority of new jobs being added to the economy pay just $13.83 per hour or less.  CLASP’s working definition of job quality considers not just wages and earnings, but also benefits, job security, advancement opportunities, work schedule, health and safety, and fairness and worker voice.  However, these factors tend to cluster, with low-paid jobs also less likely to offer benefits and flexibility.

Job quality was a problem even before the recession.   Five Labor Days ago we wrote that “too many people are stuck in bad jobs— jobs that pay poverty-level wages and offer no benefits, jobs with little opportunity for advancement, jobs in which workers don’t know from week to week if they’ll get enough hours to pay their bills, jobs that workers can lose for staying home with a sick child.”  Today that is still true — and a frightening number of workers can’t even get bad jobs.

In the face of the deep recession, government programs made a huge difference in millions of lives.  Programs like SNAP and unemployment insurance, which were beefed up with added federal resources, helped millions of low-wage and unemployed workers fill their grocery bags and pay their bills.  Additional aid to state and local governments kept teachers and firefighters on the job, and prevented deep cuts to health care and child care programs.  The TANF Emergency Fund supported subsidized jobs for over a quarter of a million workers.

But these Recovery Act provisions have mostly ended, and there is little enthusiasm in Washington, D.C. for new large-scale government investments.  Both parties talk about deficit reduction and the need to shrink government spending.  As low-wage, low-quality jobs increase, we cannot assume that government programs will make up the difference.  This means we will have to fight for a government that works for all — but we also need to figure out how to move to an economy that works for all.

Getting to this new economy will take a combination of approaches and many partners to get involved — legislators to fight for standards like an increased minimum wage, or paid sick days; law enforcement to prosecute companies that steal wages from their workers or take deadly shortcuts; business schools that share the lessons from firms that succeed by investing in their workers; and informed consumers using the power of their wallets to vote for companies that support communities.  Improving job quality won’t be easy, but we can’t ignore the challenge.

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