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"The fact is that national statistics show that EVERY income level is getting richer and that the wealthiest are seeing the highest gains. There is nothing wrong with that. Everyone is winning." Talk back on the boards.

The Betrayal of Work by Beth Shulman
10.24.03
Politics and Economy:
Downward Mobility
More on This Story:
Q and A with Beth Shulman

We asked Beth Shulman, author of THE BETRAYAL OF WORK: HOW LOW-WAGE JOBS FAIL 30 MILLION AMERICAS to answer some questions about the economic challenges facing many workers. Ms. Shulman is a lawyer and consultant on work-related issues and the former vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

What are common misconceptions about low-wage work and workers in America?

A common misconception is that low-wage jobs are only found in your neighborhood McDonalds. Yet, fast-food jobs constitute less than 5 percent of all low-wage jobs. Low-wage jobs are nurse's aides and home health aides, security guards, child care workers and educational assistants maids and porters, 1-800 call-center workers, bank tellers, data-entry keyers, cooks, food-preparation workers, waiters and waitresses, cashiers and pharmacy assistants, poultry, fish and meat processors, laundry and dry cleaning operators and agricultural workers. They are jobs in the mainstream of our economy and our lives. Another misconception about low-wage jobs is that they are low-skilled. Most economists, politicians and the media marry the two terms as if they were inseparable. Yet, taking care of a sick parent or educating a child is anything but low-skilled. And there is a misconception about who the 30 million Americans are who work in low-wage jobs. Many presume they are teenagers, illegal immigrants, or high-school dropouts. Yet contrary to these stereotypes, America's low-wage workers are mostly white, female, high school educated, and with family responsibilities.

Another misconception about low-wage work is that it is merely a stepping stone to a better job. Low-wage job mobility has decreased over the last decade. 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. And finally there is the misconception that low-wage jobs are merely the result of an efficient market, that the economy is a force of nature, and we as a society have little control over whatever difficulties it creates. The reality is that our economic world is the result of our creation, not natural law and we have the ability to make choices that would improve low-wage jobs.

What is the projected future of low-wage work in the U.S.? Is it growing? What industries/areas are most affected?

Low-wage work that today constitutes one out of every four jobs in the United States is expected to grow in the next decade. Five of the ten occupations anticipated to have the largest real job growth between 2000 and 2010 are in the lowest pay occupations: food preparation and service workers, retail sales person, cashiers, security guards, and waiters and waitresses. And of the next twenty occupations with the largest predicted job growth, more than half are in low-wage service jobs: janitors, home health aides, nursing aides, laborers, landscapers, teachers' assistants, receptionists and information clerks, child-care workers, packagers, medical assistants, and personal and home-care aides.

What role does gender play in the world of low-wage work?

First, 60 percent of all low-wage workers are women. And women occupy the lower rungs within the low-wage sector. Women still have lower incomes and are more likely to work in low-wage jobs than men with similar qualifications. Within the low-wage sector, women are still concentrated in a number of low-status, low-paying jobs that are generally typecast as "female" jobs that provide less training and fewer advancement opportunities than male dominated occupations. Many of the skills of these "female" jobs, nurturing, caring and communicating with people, have historically been trivialized and denigrated as they are today. Women with children face even greater barriers to getting better jobs. Despite the dramatic increase in the number of working mothers, the structure of America's workplaces and the family support systems in place since the 1950s have barely changed. We still lack family-supportive policies in most workplaces. And women, who continue to bear the primary responsibility for childcare and elder care and are more likely to be custodial single parents, are forced to reduce their work hours, take breaks from employment or avoid jobs that are likely to require work schedules that would clash with their family responsibilities. This leaves many women with no choice but to take low-wage jobs that provide part-time schedules. Yet, in doing so, they sacrifice decent wages, benefits and flexibility to care for their family.

Does the idea of the American dream affect our conception of work and opportunity?

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. That was the promise of America. Yet today, one in four workers, 30 million Americans earn less than $8.70 an hour, in jobs that provide few basic benefits such as health care, sick pay, disability pay, paid vacation and retirement. These jobs leave little flexibility to care for a sick child or deal with an emergency at school. And these workplaces are often physically damaging and emotionally degrading. If America believes in work, we must honor it. Whether we give basic rights to these workers and ensure that work provides "family-supporting" wages and benefits says a great deal about what kind of society and communities we want to live in.

What role are unions playing in today's low-wage work world?

Unions are playing a role similar to what they did in manufacturing in the mid part of the twentieth century. They are taking jobs that were low-paid, no-benefit, and difficult jobs and turning them into family-sustaining good jobs. The Service Employee International Union's health care organizing campaign in California changed home health care jobs in the San Francisco area that in 1995 paid $4.25 an hour with few if any benefits into $10.00 an hour jobs with employer-provided medical, dental and vision coverage, and paid time off through a vacation fund. A strong union presence in the hotel industry is also changing formerly low paid, no-benefit jobs into good jobs. Maria Sanchez, a Las Vegas guest-room attendant at a casino hotel, can now support her family. She earns $10.50 an hour, with employer-provided health benefits, sick leave, and a pension. She receives free training to move into better jobs within the hotel industry. In Reno, Nevada, a town with a comparable living standard, her counterpart without a union earns only $7.48 an hour with few benefits. The same kind of transformation of jobs from low-wage jobs to good jobs is happening in other industries where unions have been able to achieve a high union density.

Will these jobs just pack up and leave if wages and benefits are raised?

Globalization has been used as an excuse for not raising wages and benefits. But most low-wage jobs are not in globally competitive industries. Checking out groceries, waiting on tables, caring for children, cleaning offices and hotel rooms, servicing office equipment and tending the sick cannot be done from overseas. 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 and child care.

What do you see as the achievable solutions to the problem of those living on low wages?

In my book THE BETRAYAL OF WORK: HOW LOW-WAGE JOBS FAIL 30 MILLION AMERICANS, I outline a Compact with Working Americans that has a simple and clear purpose: workers should be assured that if they work hard they will be treated fairly and have the resources to provide for themselves and their families. The minimum wage, that is currently $5.15 an hour or around $10,000 a year working full-time, should be raised to the "official" poverty line of $8.70 an hour and indexed. Government inaction over the past generation has meant a nearly $2.00 cut in the real value of the minimum wage today. Improvement in the Earned Income Tax Credit, that would allow workers to earn higher incomes before losing the credit, would also help. And requiring businesses that benefit from public monies in the form of government contracts, subsidies and tax assistance, to provide quality jobs in order to qualify for those monies would give incentives to businesses to provide livable incomes and basic benefits to their workers. America needs to provide access to affordable health care to all workers. And Americans who work should have the needed flexibility and support to care for their families while at work.

Additional Information: "Exploding Myths About the Poor: Interview with Beth Shulman," FORTUNE, Sept. 16, 2003; Peter Gottschalk; Sheldon Danziger, "Family Income Mobility — How Much Is There and Has It Changed?" ; "Shaping the Future of Work," by Thomas Kochan, MITSloan Institute for Management; "Welfare, Where Do We Go From Here? A Roundtable Discussion," THINK TANK: Will There Be a Labor Shortage?; "Who is Paid the Minimum Wage and Who Would Be Affected by a $1,50 per Hour Increase," The Heritage Foundation; Budgets, Tax Cuts and The Economy, Townhall.com

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