A tree cannot withstand the storms if its roots are weak. A building will not stand without a strong foundation. An economy will not prosper if the people do not share in its rewards.
All the celebrations of Labor Day weekend could not cover up the reality that this economy is not working for working people. Last week, the National Employment Law Project released a report tracing the decline of hourly wages across various occupations during the so-called “recovery” from the Great Recession.
Unemployment has been coming down, but wages at every income level except the very rich have not been keeping up with prices. And even as wages decline across the board, inequality increases. The lowest-wage workers are taking the biggest hit; the higher-waged workers aren’t sinking as fast.
The workers who have fared the worst are often those who serve others. These are the restaurant cooks who rise when it is still dark to open kitchens to serve us breakfast, the janitors who work after the sun goes down to clean up after those in offices, the caregivers who tend to the young, the old, the vulnerable.
These workers take the early bus. They nod off in the late night subway. They serve us our food; they clean our tables; they care for our mothers and fathers in the dusk of life.
Yet even as the economy grows, they are sinking. Hourly wages for janitors dropped over 6 percent from 2009 to 2014, for cooks and restaurant workers by nearly 9 percent, by day care workers by nearly 7 percent.
Who benefits from growing profits and productivity? CEOs are cleaning up. CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies have been spending nearly all of their profits on stock buybacks and dividends. This hikes their pay, much of which is in stock options, often at the expense of the company’s future. The deck has been stacked to favor only the very few.
For the young and people of color, the reality is particularly grim. Those smart and disciplined enough to get to college end up crushed by the loans they must take out to pay for that education. Those who graduate only from high school find good jobs scarce. For a generation of young people of color, joblessness is shattering hope.
We must demand our leaders address this. We can’t settle for Republican candidates competing over who will build the highest wall or make the boldest false promise to kick millions out of our country. We can’t accede to Democratic functionaries who curb debates to win political favor. We can’t respect a press corps agog over meaningless polls and petty dust-ups.
It is long past time to demand real answers. Who has a jobs program that will put people to work, particularly young people at the start of their adult lives? What targeted programs will connect those in our inner cities with the jobs they need.
What measures are needed to insure that workers share in the profits they help to generate? What combination of bonds and revenues will enable us to rebuild a country that suffers as the sinews of its economy — from bridges to sewers to subways — weaken with age.
In each party, candidates should be required to address this central concern. Independent debates should drill down on these questions. Journalists should demand real answers and report on the differences between the contenders.
America is in the midst of the second straight so-called recovery that doesn’t reach most Americans. Wages have stagnated for the whole of this century. As we leave the dog days of August, it is time to get serious about where we are going.