Continuing the theme of Stuff Heard on NPR That Makes Me Crazy
The other morning on the way to work there was a brief commentary by an economics professor. His topic was fear about the economy, and his thesis is that Americans today are a punch of wambly, whiny, cakesniffers. Because the Economy is Doing Just Great. Really. He didn't offer any supporting evidence of the greatness of the American economy, because, well, I don't know, maybe he just couldn't be bothered. So. The economy is great, but Americans are whiny, non-Manliness* scaredy-cats. And for this he did drag out one piece of evidence: during the Carter Administration, 3% of the workforce became unemployed in any given month, and 3% of the workforce found employment. Today, he told us, those numbers are both 2%. Feel better?
No? I didn't either. Here's what he didn't bother to mention, before he went off on his digression into Manliness. He didn't mention that wages for all but the top 20% of workers have declined in real terms over the past forty years. He didn't mention that workers who are laid off now are typically out of work for at least a year, and that when they find work, it is at even less money. [I haven't found anything yet to tell me if that's been true for the past forty years or not]. He didn't mention that a much greater percentage of the workforce has attained anywhere from some to extensive post-high school education, incurring debt along the way, in order to get jobs that pay less. He didn't mention that despite tremendous gains in productivity, workers have been rewarded with neither shorter work weeks nor increased wages (except, again, those folks at the top of the corporate ladder).
He also didn't mention that the workforce has surged over the past forty years with an influx of women. He didn't have to. By bringing up Manliness he made an unstated, but nonetheless clear, message. All of this economic fear isn't based on anything real, he told us, it's just our womanly fear.
Once again, the women are to blame.
While looking around I found The Mismeasure of Poverty by Nicholas Eberstadt - Policy Review 138, where I learned that :
Mollie Orshansky intended her original standard for counting the poor to designate an income level below which “everyday living implied choosing between an adequate diet of the most economical sort and some other necessity because there was not money enough to have both.” [emphasis mine]
I like that as a definition of poverty, although it is by no means absolute. What constitutes a necessity is different to almost everyone, but the formulation of "cheap food or something really important, but not both" helps clarify. In discussions of poverty someone always seems to get incredibly annoyed at the foolish way other people spend their money (often it's me). And someone always points out that many people go through a period, often while going to college, or while starting a career, when they are broke, but with good prospects. Going back to Orshansky's definition for the American poverty level enables us to talk about the economy and what's wrong with it and how to make it better without bogging down in judgements. Okay, when we're talking about poverty, we're talking about food or shelter, food or medicine, food or education. Of course, many potential remedies to poverty will also help out people who are temporarily broke, or are struggling. Universal primary medical care, for example helps the poor as well as the uninsured grad student making a tiny stipend, or the average worker who has the misfortune to be laid off for a year.
*No, I am not going to link to that sexist, posturing drivel, thanks for asking.