ROLL CALL 10/23/14
By Michael Shank and US Rep Steve Cohen (D-TN)
This month, the first-ever global ranking of countries based on the quantity — and quality — of their jobs was released. The JustJobs Index uses empirical data to provide workers around the world with a simple answer to the question, “Where can I find the best job?” Unfortunately, the index only highlights just how much work the United States must do to improve the outlook for our workers — we didn’t even break into the top 20.
Even if jobless rates are declining overall, that doesn’t mean the workforce is much better off. American wages have stagnated for decades, during which income inequality has only grown. Most recently, between 2000 and 2012, wages for middle class America did not grow at all, but the wealthiest among us saw their net worth skyrocket. And things are even getting worse for some in our country: While the unemployment rate ticked down nationally in September, it actually rose for African American men.
To understand why America performs so poorly in the index, let’s start with employment, which is measured by labor force participation rate, unemployment rates, gross domestic product per capita (and its relative purchasing power), average monthly wages, and the Gini coefficient, the most commonly used measure of income inequality.
The U.S. isn’t struggling as much as some nations with 25 percent unemployment rates like Spain, South Africa, Mauritania, Bosnia and Lesotho. And despite the devastating global financial crisis, the U.S. wasn’t hit as hard as Greece, Spain and Croatia, which saw their unemployment rates double between 2008 and 2012. But it’s nothing close to the lowest unemployment rates seen in some counties. America could lower its unemployment rate significantly, but it would require doing things like committing the $3.6 trillion necessary to fix our failing infrastructure.
The U.S., furthermore, could employ many of our 10 million unemployed workers by growing a new green economy that harnesses our abundant renewable energy resources, from solar power to wind energy to biomass. Driving down our unemployment rate in this way, however, would likely require removing federal subsidies to fossil fuel industries that simply pad the pocketbooks of millionaires and doing more to make the market truly competitive. As an added benefit, doing so would reduce our national deficit. But time is ticking on this front, as China is already positioning itself to dominate the renewable energy market, with estimates suggesting it could account for over 40 percent of renewable energy capacity by 2020.
Employing more people in America is also a critical aspect of improving economic and educational opportunity, reducing violence (data consistently show correlation between poverty and violence), and reducing the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. But there are two other critical areas of improvement that America must address if it wants to improve its JustJobs Index ranking and improve the lives of our workers.
We must also tackle the way in which our country protects a dignified standard of living and gender equality. On both dimensions, we still struggle. Unfortunately, the trend has been cutting, not increasing, pension programs that help seniors and reducing instead of supporting public social safety net protections and health expenditures. We’re seeing this all across America, as workers retire with less and less to show for it. And it is disappointing that women continue to receive substantially smaller salaries and experience more workplace obstacles and barriers than their male counterparts. This must change, especially in a country that claims to be a beacon of gender equality. These are not qualities of an economy aimed at ensuring everyone’s chance at the American dream, especially not after the financial crisis and housing crisis decimated the American middle class’s property and other assets.
The U.S. has an opportunity to restore American pride to the workplace. An American job, and an American workforce, should be as quintessentially and patriotically American as baseball and apple pie. But it’s lost its luster, thanks to the slow whittling away of labor rights, collective bargaining and the more harmful aspects of globalization and outsourcing. The time is now to catch up with — and surpass — the rest of the developed world.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., serves on the House Judiciary and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. Dr. Michael Shank, PhD, is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and senior fellow at the JustJobs Network.