The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

“JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!” rings hollow. The truth lies in WORKERS, WORKERS, WORKERS.

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Jose Motolinia sweeps the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Well over 2 million people work as janitors/cleaners, with a median wage of $11.27. (Photo: Don Emmert / AFP via Getty Images)

Yep, millions voted for change. Drain the swamp, jumpstart the economy, advance the interests of the “forgotten” workers.
Now, we’re getting change all right. The problem: it’s mostly at the expense of those workers. Turns out that JOBS is not the same as WORKERS.

Keenly aware of all that has slipped away from them over the past few decades, voters in 2016 grabbed at the promise of JOBS.

So far, it’s not working out the way they wanted: Congress is grabbing at the chance to wield that one word like a cudgel. In the name of JOBS, they’re rushing to unfetter business from restrictions, regulations, taxes, constraints: in other words, the time-tested and honored rules that keep business in bounds and ensure that working families have a shot.

So JOBS becomes a blanket excuse. A recent Trump tweet about Exxon investing billions in the Gulf Coast noted:

Buy American & hire American are the principles at the core of my agenda, which is: JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Thank you .

But this mantra is not the same as respecting WORKERS. In the past few weeks, the administration has shown quite clearly the contempt they hold for low-wage workers.

  • The first nominee for Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, had a shocking record of treating his own employees like “the bottom of the pool,” as he called them. After enough dirt surfaced, he withdrew from consideration.
  • Just this week, the Senate GOP voted to make it easier for federal contractors to hide labor law violations. This is not negligible: nearly a quarter of the workforce in the US is employed at a company that holds at least one federal contract. This move will likely stifle complaints about working conditions, especially from vulnerable workers such as immigrants and refugees. The food processing industry, already dangerous and difficult, will be even more inclined to cut corners on safety and health measures.
  • As the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are waiting for a new Secretary and new leadership, reports from federal employees indicate that the agency may be shifting gear toward a new era of laxness. As Ben Penn notes in a piece on Bloomberg: “Field offices have been instructed to halt all press releases on enforcement actions and to take a pause from pursuing proactive workplace investigations.”
  • In late February, a “resolution of disapproval” was introduced, to overturn the Volks Rule, which allows OSHA to continue prosecuting record-keeping. The Economic Policy Institute notes: “Overturning the Volks Rule will result in more workers being injured, and it will penalize responsible employers.”
  • There is little hope that Congress will even entertain an increase in the federal minimum wage, stuck at $7.25 since 2009. Keeping the wage floor this low depresses wages for millions of workers. Currently, as Oxfam’s research shows, 44 percent of the workforce earns under $15 an hour (58 million workers). Naturally, this takes a heavier toll on women (49 percent earn under $15); African Americans (53 percent); and Hispanics (60 percent). Women of color bear the biggest burden of all.
  • While the Obama administration passed a rule that moved the threshold for overtime pay from $23,660 to $47,476, it seems highly likely that this administration will do little to challenge a current injunction imposed on the new rule by a judge in Texas. Millions of workers will continue to log hours for no pay, giving their time to their employers.

In the end, JOBS is not a policy; nor is it a panacea. (And it’s not really what’s at the heart of these efforts.) The truth is that the US has an awful lot of JOBS. Since the recession of 2008, the job market HAS grown. Unemployment is below 5 percent. The February jobs report indicated employers added 235,000 workers to their payrolls.

The problem is that so many of these JOBS are NOT GOOD. They don’t pay well, they’re not safe, they impose irregular and arduous schedules, they offer no ladders of opportunity. In Oxfam’s recent report, Undervalued and Underpaid in America, we explore how millions of women are trapped in these dead-end jobs, struggling to survive and support their families.

So it’s not so much JOBS that need to be created, as GOOD JOBS. And that’s not as easy as putting up a national park for sale and sitting back. It takes understanding some essential economic principles, accepting some fundamental costs, and rolling up your sleeves to get it done.

Simply: If the goal is to empower the majority of workers – to provide jobs that offer safe conditions, adequate pay, ladders of opportunity – you need to invest in workers.

Full stop.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) recently released a plan with an agenda that has been advanced and embraced by many advocates and workers’ organizations over the years.

His plan includes increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, giving companies a tax break when they commit to staying in America, hiring in the United States, and giving good wages and fair benefits to their workers. Sen. Brown argues that workers are the true economic drivers, and “if work isn’t valuable for workers, Americans can’t earn their way to the middle class.”

This agenda echoes one advanced by Oxfam last year, which laid out four simple steps to give the working poor a raise:

  1. Raise the federal minimum wage.
  2. Provide access to earned sick leave.
  3. Protect overtime pay for millions of workers.
  4. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.

In the short run, you can lure businesses to invest, profit, and create some JOBS. In the long run, however, most working families end up paying a terribly steep price. As Sen. Brown notes, “Helping corporations doesn’t mean workers are helped.”

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