Economy

10 Economic Trends that Spell Doom for America's Workers

We're becoming an industrialized nation marked by an ultra-wealthy minority and widespread poverty.

Official government unemployment figures for the United States never tell the whole story. They don’t take into account all the Americans who have been out of work for so long that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) no longer treats them like part of the work force. Nor do they factor in widespread underemployment and the fact that so many formerly middle class Americans have joined the ranks of the neo-poor, or the fact that millions of Americans who made too much to qualify for food stamps ten years ago are poor enough to receive them now. And for them, figures recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are of little or no consolation.

On Friday, the BLS reported that the U.S.’ official unemployment ratehad fallen to 5.8%which is the lowest in six years. A total of 214,000 payroll jobs were added in October, according to the BLS. And some Wall Street employees who have escaped the sting of the Great Recession will point to that 5.8% figure (which is for what the BLS’ calls its U-3 rate) as evidence of economic recovery. But economic recovery is something that millions of other Americans can only dream about. And the reality is that if the U.S. continues on its current economic trajectory, it will end up looking more and more like Brazil or Mexico—that is, an industrialized country in which one finds an ultra-wealthy minority, widespread poverty and not enough in between.

Below are ten disturbing trends that illustrate the severity of the U.S.’ economic decline.

1. Fast Food Workers Have Gotten Older

Low-paying jobs in fast food were once dominated by teenagers and high school students, who typically moved on to better paying jobs after attending college or trade school. But according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), 36.4% of fast-food workers are now between 25 and 54—which underscores the fact that many Americans who would have had high-paying white-collar or blue-collar jobs in the past are now stuck in dead-end service jobs. And the BLS’ U-3 rate doesn’t reflect the fact that so many of the employed have become the underemployed. In April, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) released a report on the toll that the Great Recession (which, for millions of Americans, has really been a depression) had taken on the U.S.’ job market: NELP found that while higher-paying jobs had accounted for 41% of the Great Recession’s job losses, they had accounted for only 30% of the country’s “recovery growth.” But while lower-paying jobs had accounted for only 22% of the job losses, they accounted for 44% of the “recovery growth.” So in other words, most of the new jobs that have brought the BLS’ official U-3 unemployment rate down to 5.8% are dead-end service jobs—and people who once had high-paying white-collar or blue-collar jobs are now working part time at McDonalds or Burger King.

2. Alternative Unemployment Figures Paint a Grim Picture of the U.S. Job Market

The BLS’ best known formula for calculating unemployment is the abovementioned U-3; lesser known is the BLS’ U-6 formula, which takes a broader view of unemployment and includes some people the U-3 omits (such as part-time workers who would like full-time employment and short-term “discouraged workers”). The BLS’ U-6 figure for September was 11.8%. But statistics analyst John Williams, who publishes the Shadow Government Stats website, believes that even the U-6 is misleading because it has too narrow a definition of unemployment—and Williams regularly offers his own alternative unemployment statistics using a formula that includes long-term discouraged workers. According to Williams’ formula, the U.S.’ real unemployment rate for September 2014 was a whopping 23.1%. Some would argue that Williams’ formula, by adding to the U-6, reflects a combination of unemployment and underemployment rather than strictly unemployment; regardless, it paints a troubling picture of the U.S. economy that is both troubling and informative.

3. Europeans More Likely To Achieve the American Dream

In the past, Europeans immigrated to the U.S. in search of greater upward mobility. But with the U.S. economy resembling that of a banana republic, the American Dream is, ironically, easier to achieve in parts of Europe. In 2011, a report by Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project compared upward mobility in the U.S. to that of nine other major countries, including Germany, France, Australia, Canada and the U.K.: Pew found that the U.S. was the lowest in terms of upward mobility. In other words, Americans who are born into poverty are more likely to remain in poverty than people in some parts of Europe.

4. Food Insecurity Persists

In 2000, 17 million Americans were receiving food stamps, but according to the USDA, the number is now 46.2 million. That is a slight improvement from the USDA’s figure of 47.8 million in December 2012, but it’s still 29 million more people than in 2000. And while food stamps decrease the amount of hunger in the United States, they don’t eliminate it: according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 14.5% of U.S. households were food-insecure at some point during 2012. And the USDA has reported that in Texas, that number was 18.4% from 2010-2012. Texas, of course, is a state where far-right Republicans have considerable influence, and the fact that Texas’ food insecurity is higher than the national average illustrates how detrimental the economic policies of Republicans and Tea Party are in that state.

5. Long-Term Unemployment at Record Levels

Layoffs were common during the recessions of the early 1980s, early 1990s and early 2000s. But in those recessions, most of the Americans who lost their jobs didn’t remain unemployed longer than six months—whereas in the current economic downturn, it isn’t hard to find Americans who have been out of work for two or three years. The U.S. Department of Labor has found that about one-third of the long-term unemployed (that is, unemployed for more than six months) have been out of work for over two years. And the longer they are unemployed, the harder it becomes for them to find work.

6. The Minimum Wage Remains Stagnant

President Barack Obama supports raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, but economist Robert Reich (former secretary of labor for the Bill Clinton Administration) has asserted that $10.10 an hour isn’t enough and is calling for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour. But even a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour is unlikely to come about as long as the House of Representatives and Senate are plagued by so many far-right Republicans, Tea Party wingnuts and Blue Dog neoliberal Democrats. Raising the minimum wage nationally wouldn’t be a panacea—a real economic recovery will involve creating an abundance of white-collar and blue-collar jobs paying $20 per an hour or more. But it would be one step in the right direction.

7. Union Membership Has Reached An All-Time Low

When union membership was at its peak in the post-World War II America of the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, labor unions were not only beneficial for unionized electricians, plumbers and construction workers—they encouraged better working conditions across the board. Even those who went to college and pursued non-union white-collar jobs benefited. But union membership has plummeted since then: according to the BLS, the rate of unionization among American workers fell to 11.3% in 2012, which is the lowest since 1916 (when it was 11.2%). And that 11.3% includes both public-sector and private-sector unions: BLS figures become even more depressing when one considers that unionization in the private sector fell to 6.6% in 2012 (compared to around 35% in the mid-1950s).

8. Neoliberal Globalization: The Ultimate Race to the Bottom

Neoliberal globalization has been a curse for both white-collar and blue-collar workers in the U.S., encouraging the outsourcing of everything from manufacturing jobs to jobs in call centers to technical writing to developing countries. Josh Bivens, research and policy director for the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, DC, has studied globalization extensively and concluded that in 2011, globalization and neoliberal policies had depressed wages for non-college educated American workers by 5.5%.

And in 2012, a study by economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson took an in-depth look at the effects that globalization has had in the U.S.: they found that between 1991 and 2007, the U.S. had lost roughly one-quarter of all its manufacturing jobs because of low-wage competition from China.

9. Too-Big-To-Fail Banks Are Bigger Than Ever

When the banksters who caused the economic crash of September 2008 were bailed out by American taxpayers, genuine reform in the financial sector never came about. Behemoths like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs should have been broken up into 20 or 25 smaller banks, but instead, banks that were deemed “too big to fail” in 2008 have since become much bigger. Wells Fargo, according to the Los Angeles Times, had a whopping $1.4 trillion in assets in late 2013 compared to $609 billion before 2008. Journalist Matt Taibbi, who has done extensive reporting on problems in the banking sector, is not exaggerating when he says that the U.S.’ too-big-to-fail megabanks are financial disasters waiting to happen.

10. Low Interest Rates Creating a Retirement Crisis

The fact that millions of Americans have been underemployed during the Great Recession is terrible from a retirement standpoint: people making less money have less money to invest in tax-deferred IRAs (individual retirement accounts). And to make matters worse, those with IRAs have been hammered by an extended period of pathetically low interest rates. In a 2014 interview with Bloomberg.com, Alicia Munnell (director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College) described low interest rates as a “crisis” and asserted, “Five more years of low interest rates are going to make providing one’s self with an adequate retirement income extremely difficult.” And in a 2013 Gallup poll, 37% of non-retirees said they don’t expect to be able to retire until after 65 (compared to only 14% who felt that way in 1995, when banks were still paying decent interest rates).

 

Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.

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