Beth Shulman

Part-Timers Treated Like Second-Class Employees

As almost 11.1 million people look for work nationwide, including 400,000 men and women in Georgia, many take on part-time positions when no full-time jobs are available. Nationally, more than one out of every five workers in the United States works part time.

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Gunning for College

What should you have to sacrifice to get a college education in the United States? Isn’t it hard enough to get good grades and high SAT scores? Should you have to risk your life as well? As back-to-school season gears up, a lot of American high schools evidently don’t think so. A growing number of parents and high schools are taking steps to limit military recruiters’ access to students. 

With casualties in Iraq past the 1,500 mark, military recruiters make many parents uneasy. High schools in California, Wisconsin, Arizona  and elsewhere are placing restrictions on how military recruiters interact with students. “Due to the realities of war, there is less encouragement today from parents, teachers and other influencers to join the military,� admitted the Pentagon’s top recruitment officer, David S. C. Chu, in a classic understatement.

As the Army and Marines continue to fall short of their recruitment targets, military recruiters are ramping up their efforts to reach teenagers. And as the cost of attending college rises, the financial benefits of enlistment in the U.S. military may entice potential recruits.

Certainly, the numbers are clear about the value of college. Without a college education, it is hard to make a good living in America today. Yet the cost of college has priced many young men and women out of the market. It is no accident that military recruiters are out scouring America’s working-class suburbs, offering enlistment bonuses to high school graduates. A promise of college tuition is very enticing to teens whose parents just don’t have much money.

America needs to find ways to guarantee college for everyone�whether they become soldiers or not. College tuition is an expensive up-front investment, and it is getting costlier. Family income and financial aid have not kept pace. And Congress isn’t helping. Instead, it has cut funds for Pell Grants and other aid programs that help people most. The Pell award has dropped from covering 84 percent of the cost of four years of college in 1976 to covering only 39 percent in 2000. This makes a college degree harder for working-class and poor students to obtain and perpetuates an already-growing economic divide

Certainly, many young men and women enlist today out of a patriotic desire to serve their country. But for others, signing up for America’s armed forces may be the only way they see to get the money they need for a college education�and for the future good job it will make possible.

A college diploma offers graduates a distinct lifelong financial advantage. According to the Social Inequality Project of the Russell Sage Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic organization that supports social science research, the average salary for U.S. high school graduates is less than half that for people with bachelors’ degrees.

The gap has been widening. As UCLA economist Tom Kane points out in his essay “College-Going and Inequality� (Social Inequality, Russell Sage Foundation, 2004), the earnings differential between college and high-school graduates more than doubled over the past 20 years. The median income of someone with only a high school degree rose just 16 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the same period, compared with more than 45 percent for those with advanced degrees. Just as a high school diploma was what our parents needed to get a job that would pay enough to support a middle-class life for their families, today’s young men and women need a college degree.

Although the demand for a college education has increased as its potential returns have soared, Kane shows that the increase in U.S. college attendance was disproportionately among wealthier individuals. Over the past two decades, the richest quarter of Americans increased their college enrollment by 12 percent, while those at the bottom rose by only 5 percent, expanding an already large enrollment gap .

Meanwhile, most of the increase in post-secondary education among Americans with lower incomes was at two-year community colleges or technical schools. Enrollment rates at four-year colleges, which lead to much higher paying careers, increased by 20 percent for the rich, while for those near the bottom, the rate of four-year college enrollment actually fell from levels a decade earlier.

With these large payoffs from college, the military enlistment bonuses seem like a lifeline for high school graduates who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to college. Yet do we really want a society in which the only way for young men and women to afford the cost of a college education is to agree to risk their lives ?

If we believe in equal opportunity in America, we need to ensure other options. Harvard University and some other Ivy League schools have recently guaranteed tuition for any student they admit, but that won’t help most college hopefuls. We need to ensure that all high school students who qualify for college can go, regardless of their family financial status.

The Oprah Society

It's inspiring to watch someone beat the odds.  If you see the deck is stacked, their triumph is especially sweet.  Day after day, in our made-for-TV society, that's what we're shown: inspiring exceptions--women and men who, by some miracle, overcome insurmountable barriers.  They often weep as we do when we hear their tales of woe.  Indeed, whether it's addiction or affliction, layoffs or payoffs, their stories are meant to convince us "Hey, they made it, why can't we?"

From yesterday's daytime gabfests to today's reality shows, somehow in America, the insurmountable became the inevitable. We went from counting on a family-sustaining job to expecting a pink slip. We've seen whole towns rust and millions lose decent jobs. We've seen still others trapped in jobs that fail to provide the basics of a decent life.  Meanwhile, there aren't enough reality show makeovers to transform whole blocks--let alone entire towns--or get us all college diplomas or decent jobs. 

So a few are chosen, and the rest of us are made to feel like we failed. If only we had tried harder, worked smarter, learned more, invested better, we'd be on TV for all to envy. It's one thing to admire those who beat the odds, quite another to create a society which makes the odds nearly impossible to overcome.

Whatever happened to the Land of Opportunity? To the melting pot that pulled millions from every corner of the world? Drawn by the American Dream, we were told that if you just worked hard, you could support yourself and raise a family, send your children to college, take family vacations, build a nest egg and retire? 

Today, one in four workers--30 million Americans--hold jobs that pay below $9.00 an hour, putting them and their families below the federal poverty line. The work is often grueling, dangerous or humiliating. Most low-wage jobs lack health care, vacation pay, sick leave or pension plans. They provide little flexibility or training.  These jobs sentence child caregivers, janitors and pharmacy techs to a lifetime of poverty, and mock those who work in nursing homes, clean our hotel rooms and offices and process our food.  Most of these workers are adults with at least a high school education who have families to take care of just like the rest of us.

More and more middle-class jobs are taking on the characteristics of low-wage jobs, with little job security, stagnant wages and decreasing health and retirement benefits. In 1987, employers provided health coverage to 70 percent of workers, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, yet today that number has declined by 10 percent. At the same time, employees are picking up more and more of their health premium costs. Fewer than one-fifth of large and medium-sized companies now pay the full cost of employees' health premiums. A similar shift has occurred with pensions. Nearly half of full-time workers were covered by traditional pensions 30 years ago.  Today, that number has plummeted to below 20 percent. Then there's job security: the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that today a middle-aged man is likely to be in his job for 71/2 years, down from 11 years just 25 years ago.

These conditions are not an act of nature.  We can make different choices.  We could offer quality child care to give all our kids a fair start.  We could insist our jobs provide at least a week of paid sick leave.  We could raise the federal minimum wage--as a start to $7.25 an hour, an option our Congress just turned down last month.  We could insist every American have affordable health care.  We could ensure that every qualified young man and woman can afford to attend college and graduate without mortgaging their future. And at the end of one's work life, we could make sure that all Americans have enough to support themselves.

So what will it be? Will we remain content with a society that rewards the few and continues to erect roadblocks for most Americans, or are we going to live up to the ideals of the American Dream--that if you work hard, you will be able to take care of yourself and your family? The choice is ours.

Four Myths About Low-Wage Work

As the presidential campaigns seek definition, one pivotal issue remains hidden from view. It is potentially huge, especially for Democrats, because it involves their natural constituents, and it addresses core issues of the economy, social justice and fairness. The issue is low-wage work. Fully 30 million Americans -- one in four U.S. workers -- earn $8.70 an hour or less, a rate that works out to $18,100 a year, which is the current official poverty level in the United States for a family of four. These low-wage jobs usually lack health care, child care, pensions and vacation benefits. Their working conditions are often grueling, dangerous, even humiliating.

At the same time, more and more middle-class jobs are taking on many of these same characteristics, losing the security and benefits once taken for granted.

The shameful reality of low-wage work in America should be on every Democrat's cue card as a potential weapon to be used against the Republicans' rosy economic scenario. But so far it isn't. Why not? One reason may be four long-standing myths that have for years drowned out a rational discussion of what should be a national call to conscience:

MYTH 1: Low-wage work is merely a temporary step on the ladder to a better job. According to the American dream, if you work hard, apply yourself and play by the rules, you will be able to earn a decent living for yourself and your family. If you fail to move up, you must be lazy or incompetent.

THE TRUTH: Low-wage job mobility is minimal. Low-wage workers have few career ladders. Those of us lucky enough to have better-paying employment depend on them every day. They are nursing home and home health care workers who care for our parents; they are poultry processors who bone and package our chicken; they are retail clerks in department stores, grocery stores and convenience stores; they are housekeepers and janitors who keep our hotel rooms and offices clean; they are billing and telephone call center workers who take our complaints and answer our questions; and they are teaching assistants in our schools and child care workers who free us so that we can work ourselves.

In a recent study following U.S. adults through their working careers, economics professors Peter Gottschalk of Boston College and Sheldon Danziger of the University of Michigan found that about half of those whose earnings ranked in the bottom 20 percent in 1968 were still in the same group in 1991. Of those who had moved up, nearly two-thirds remained below the median income. The U.S. economy provides less mobility for low-wage earners, according to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study, than do the economies of France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Finland or Sweden.

Today's economy is even more rigid. In many industries, such as insurance, retail and financial services, wealthier clients are served by different employees than lower-status customers. This makes it harder for the lowest wage earners to move up. Some do, but this happens primarily in the manufacturing sector, where the number of jobs continues to decline.

MYTH 2: Training and new skills solve the problem. Low-wage workers are said to lack the necessary skills for better-paying work in our changing economy. What's needed is retraining and better education for everyone.

THE TRUTH: The problem is that there are fewer better jobs to move into. The percentage of low-wage jobs is growing, not shrinking. The growing sectors of our economy are the labor-intensive industries. The two lowest-paid work categories, retail and service, increased their share of the job market from 30 percent to 48 percent between 1965 and 1998. By the end of the decade, the low end of the job market will account for more than 30 percent of the American work force. There will be about 1.8 million software engineers and computer support specialists, but more than 3.8 million cashiers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of all new jobs by 2010 will require relatively brief on-the-job training. Only three of every 10 positions currently requires more than a high school diploma. Certainly, raising skills and education levels will lead some workers to higher wages and better jobs. But that approach will do little to improve the lives of most of the hardworking women and men in the jobs that will continue to grow as a proportion of our economy.

Just as important, those who denigrate low-wage work as "low-skilled" ignore the reality of these jobs. A nursing-home worker must be compassionate, must pay attention to detail and must possess psychological and emotional strength; a call-center worker must have patience and must be able to command enough information to handle questions and complaints; a security guard must be dedicated, alert and conscientious. To say these workers need retraining to earn more lets their employers off the hook for failing to compensate them appropriately for their existing skills and duties.

MYTH 3: Globalization stops us from doing anything about this problem. Between 1979 and 1999, 3 million manufacturing jobs vanished as global trade brought in textiles, shoes, cars and steel produced by overseas labor. In June 2003 alone, 56,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. American employers must keep wages and benefits low if they are to compete in the global marketplace.

THE TRUTH: Very few low-wage jobs are now in globally competitive industries. It is true that global trade has had a profound impact on our economy and on American workers. But companies in Beijing are not competing with child care providers, nursing homes, restaurants, security guard firms and janitorial services in the United States. Checking out groceries, waiting on tables, servicing office equipment and tending the sick cannot be done from overseas.

Employers and politicians use globalization as an excuse to do nothing for low-wage workers, scaring them into accepting lower pay, fewer benefits and less job security. It is invoked to justify reduced social spending and less workplace regulation, and workers believe they are powerless to object. Yet not only does globalization fail to apply to most of America's low-wage jobs, other industrialized countries facing the same global competition have chosen differently: They provide social safety nets, notably including guaranteed health care. As a result, according to a 1997 study by Timothy Smeeding of Syracuse University, Americans in the lowest income brackets have living standards that are 13 percent below those of low-income Germans and 24 percent below the bottom 20 percent of Swedes.

MYTH 4: Low-wage jobs are merely the result of an efficient market. The economy is a force of nature, and we as a society have little control over whatever difficulties it creates.

THE TRUTH: The economic world we live in is the result of our creation, not natural law. America's low-wage workers have little power to change their conditions because of a series of political, economic and corporate decisions over the past quarter-century that undercut the bargaining power of workers, especially those in lower pay grades.

Those decisions included the push to increase global trade and open global markets, changes in immigration law, the deregulation of industries that had been highly unionized, Federal Reserve policies focused on reducing inflation threats, and a corporate ideological shift that eliminated America's postwar social contract with workers and emphasized maximizing shareholder value. Those decisions worsened conditions in low-wage jobs and exaggerated disparities in income and wealth.

America's most vulnerable workers have also lost many institutions, laws and political allies that could have helped counterbalance these forces. In the 1950s, the number of American workers who were fired, harassed or threatened for trying to organize a union was in the hundreds a year. According to Human Rights Watch, by 1990 that number exceeded 20,000. In 1979, one-fourth of private-sector workers were unionized; only 11 percent are today.

At the same time, the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage fell 30 percent during the 1980s. Despite minimal increases in the 1990s, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the value of the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour is still 21 percent less than it was in 1979.

The richest country in the world should not tolerate such treatment of more than a fourth of its workers. The myths of upward mobility and inevitable market forces blind too many people to the grim reality of low-wage work. A presidential campaign is the right time to begin a conversation on how to change it.

Beth Shulman is a lawyer and author of "The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans," to be published next month by the New Press.

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