The Essence of the Work Problem

There are two intolerable conditions affecting the world of work in the United States. The first is in full flower. The second  will worsen over time. Solving both conditions would restore true democracy and fix our record-setting inequality. It won’t be easy, but the alternative is pretty grim.

The first problem is that workers at the low end of the income scale are grossly underpaid. The second, which will become increasingly disrupting, is that worker productivity is markedly improving, but we have made no social accommodation of this fact.

There are two intolerable conditions
affecting the world of work in the United States.

As many have noted, the United States is the richest country in history. There is well more than enough wealth to provide for every person. But this wealth is so unevenly distributed that millions of citizens with full time jobs live below the poverty level and cannot get out of it. Retailers earn $21K per year; health insurance costs $15K, leaving $5K for all other expenses. Check out this study from Demos.

Although we also have an extraordinary class of the super-wealthy, whose wealth has grown by some 300% in recent decades, this wealth is not the primary problem. The primary problem, the generator of our all-time high inequality, is at the opposite end of the wealth scale. The problem, as I and many others have said, is that those people are paid so poorly they cannot provide the essentials of a modern American life for themselves and their families. Nor can they escape poverty.

The poverty level is set by the government, which calculates the income necessary to be above poverty. But this level does not include two of the most important elements of a decent modern life: health care and savings for old age.

There is more than a little irony that so many people on the political right object to government money being used to protect the poor, the ill, and the aged, yet they also do not want these people to be able to earn these things for themselves.

People on the political right object to government
money being used to protect the poor,
yet they do not want these people
to earn these things for themselves.

Such people apparently do not believe work that is poorly paid is valuable enough that the earners should earn enough to stay out of poverty. But it is. We in the US have a pretty strong hierarchy of work and pay. This is reasonable to some extent. You’d rather have a skilled electrician install new wiring, because saving a few bucks on someone unqualified may burn your house down. But the so-called “unskilled” work such as cleaning also requires some ability to do the job well, and how to pace oneself to endure. Moreover, dependability is one of the most important factors in any job. Yet we want to pay a dependable unskilled worker poverty wages he can’t live on, and then we object to making up for it with payments from our taxes while we call him lazy and unproductive.

We have been feeling the effects of accelerating worker productivity for a long time. Inspection of any chart of productivity vs. pay will show a rising curve of productivity, but virtually no increase in wages for a long time. Increased worker productivity always means some become unemployed.

The gross number of hours of work has decreased,
yet forty hours per week is still
the standard work week.

The largest part of increased worker productivity has come from increased computer use in every part of the working world. Work that formerly required a separate work force to manage things like inventory is done by sales clerks, with the inventory automatically adjusted by computer as the sale is recorded. The typing pool vanished a long time ago when the bosses realized they could record and transmit their communications directly. So computerization has meant, and continues to mean, that increasing numbers of workers become redundant. Overall, the gross number of hours of work in the country has sharply decreased, and continues to decrease, yet we still maintain forty hours per week as the standard work week.

The two problems conflict with each other. While it will be necessary to reduce the hours of the work week, low-pay workers are already grossly underpaid. How we address these interrelated problems will determine the quality of our democracy, and especially our level of equality.


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