What the pandemic taught us about America’s working class

“April, who works at a pet shop in Minneapolis, makes $11.75 an hour. She loves her job, and it pays better than the federal minimum wage, but not by much. She and her partner get by. They still don’t make enough money to afford a car, but they can manage rent, their phones, and internet, and support their 12-year-old daughter.

Her partner lost his job as a body piercer when the pandemic hit. He went on unemployment insurance for a while, and he and April finally found health insurance through a public assistance program. It was more consistent income than they’d seen in quite some time. “We were able to get a little bit of extra money into our accounts for once. We weren’t going paycheck to paycheck for a while. That was wonderful,” April said. “I think a ton of people were finally out of the poverty level with that money.” Her partner has now found a different job that allows him to work from home.

Life is more or less fine, but April said it would be better if they made more. “We would be able to have a house like a normal family,” she added.

April and her family’s situation is quite normal: In 2019, about 39 million people made less than $15 an hour. When the pandemic hit, that number actually fell — not because people were making more but because low-wage workers became unemployed.”

Unemployment Is Much Worse Than You Think — Here’s Why.

“discouraged workers aren’t the only problem with the unemployment rate. In fact, these days the headline unemployment rate isn’t just an undercount, it actually paints an alternate reality that masks the degree to which low- and moderate-income people are hurting. As a result, policymakers believe these Americans are better off than they actually are.

There are two additional problems with the way we count people who are unemployed.

First, there’s no accounting for how many hours a part-time worker is working. By the BLS’ traditional definition, a handyman or private nurse who works for a single afternoon each week is counted in the headline national unemployment figure as “employed,” even if they want more work but can’t find it. Our unemployment figures make it look like the person working a handful of hours because that’s the only work they can get is just as “employed” as a full-time CEO. In practice, this means that the unemployment rate actively obscures how many workers are living in poverty in part not because they don’t have a job, but because they can’t get enough hours.

Second, the data doesn’t indicate whether the job a worker is doing pays enough to keep them out of poverty. The assumption implicit in the data is that if you’re “employed,” all should be well, but as the growing movement toward raising the minimum wage attests, it’s increasingly clear that many American workers are employed, often full-time, but still living in poverty.”

“even when the economy was purportedly at its peak before the pandemic, approximately a quarter of Americans looking for full-time work at a livable wage couldn’t find it. And then at the nation’s worst moment in nearly a century, that number jumped, showing that 32.4 percent of the workforce was out of luck.”

“The bottom line for too many Americans and for minorities in particular, is that for a long, long time, the American economy has not been performing as well as the headline unemployment rate suggests. And while that may be news to those living in comfortable neighborhoods and suburbs, it will not surprise those living in more downtrodden corners of many cities, let alone those who are living in places like the largely forgotten city where I grew up, York, Pa. Over the last several decades, as businesses including York Dental or York Air Conditioner have either closed facilities or scaled back, middle-class prosperity has become more of an impossible dream than an American Dream.

Washington, D.C., has failed to respond appropriately because the headline unemployment figures, particularly in good times, have given some policymakers of both parties license to embrace a narrative that in the absence of a crisis like the one we’re enduring today, our economic approach works fairly well.

We need an economic agenda born from the realization that the true unemployment picture is much worse than policymakers realize. A quarter of the workforce, including a disproportionate share of minority communities, can’t land a full-time job with a living wage even when the overall economy appears to be healthy. The window through which we view the economy matters. We’ve been using a broken measuring stick to keep track of our success.”

CBO Says Raising Minimum Wage to $15 an Hour Would Kill Jobs, Because Obviously It Would

“the CBO estimates that raising the minimum wage would cost 1.4 million jobs, reducing total national employment by 0.9 percent in 2025, the first year in which the full $15 hourly wage would be in effect. Some people’s wages would increase, lifting about 0.9 million people out of poverty in the process; the evidence suggests these higher wages would be largely paid for by consumers in the form of higher prices. The knock-on effects to employment, taxation, and various federal programs would raise the deficit by about $54 billion over the next decade.”

“You can always argue with the CBO’s estimates and models, and at times it’s been quite wrong. But it’s fairly obvious that substantially raising federal wage requirements would result in some number of employers choosing to employ fewer people, especially in rural areas with lower costs of living where employers are likely to be more sensitive to increased labor costs.”

Minimum Wage: Good Idea? Or Bad Idea?: Video Sources

Making Sense of the Minimum Wage: A Roadmap for Navigating Recent Research Jeffrey Clemens. 5 14 2019. CATO Institute. https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/making-sense-minimum-wage-roadmap-navigating-recent-research Gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 would be good for workers, good for businesses, and good for the economy Ben Zipperer. 2

How the Pandemic Is Worsening America’s Racial Gaps

“In the middle of a pandemic that has killed roughly 1 in every 1,020 Black Americans — a disproportionate death toll likely to worsen as coronavirus cases spike in much of the country — it’s not just lives that are being imperiled. Racial wealth gaps are worsening, and progress towards economic equity is being undone.”

““When the pandemic translates into a disproportionate burden on low-wealth households, that is correlated with race,” says Jones. “The median wealth of white households is between 9 and 10 times as much as the median black household. And during this pandemic, the people with the lowest level of the wealth don’t have the emergency savings to hold themselves over.”
At the same time, Black and Latino workers are more likely to have “frontline” jobs that put them at heightened risk of Covid infection. For many, it’s a bind: You have less of a financial cushion to fall back on and need the work. But the job itself puts you at heightened risk of Covid infection, your health insurance is generally tied to your job, and if you lose it and catch Covid, you face potential financial ruin. Even when the pandemic ends, Jones expects that Black and Latino households will be “worse off, relative to white households, than when it began.””

“For years, workers have had a continually eroding level of leverage in the workplace. The ways companies have redefined labor as “external contractors” basically causes more and more people to not be covered by workplace protections. During this pandemic, those people couldn’t get unemployment insurance at all. It’s indicative of a larger problem: The labor market is being reoriented in a way where workers have less and less power. One reason that’s important is that if you don’t have a lot of say, you’re going to be stuck between a rock and a hard place: forced to either not work, or to go to work under far less-than-ideal circumstances in terms of protections from Covid infection and other health problems. Do they have the right protective equipment? Do they have sick leave? Probably not.

Related to health care, we have health insurance driven by where you’re employed. During a time like this — a pandemic with acute and chronic health implications and high rates of unemployment — going in and out of access to health care is particularly devastating. In the long run, we need some form of universal health care access to offset this problem of people losing their access to health care if they lose their jobs.”

” We found that people are sensitive to changes in their paychecks from month to month, and that’s particularly true for Black and Latinx households and households with a low level of liquid assets. What I mean by liquid assets are savings and other assets that are either cash or which can be quickly converted into cash — so your bank account, your savings account, and some investments you can quickly cash out. The households with the lowest level of liquid assets had the most vulnerability. When there were changes in their income, they had to make bigger adjustments, or adjustments that were going to be more painful. Relative to white households, Black and Latino households were more sensitive to those fluctuations, and that seems to be a result of the fact those households generally have less in terms of liquid assets, which is related to broader racial wealth gaps driven by a number of factors”