Working Class Blues

July 7, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This week I had a chance to watch two documentaries hosted by journalist Bill Moyers several years ago (Note #1). They featured the shifting fortunes of two blue-collar working-class families in Milwaukee. Each family had enjoyed the security and benefits of middle-class life – a house and dreams that they would send their kids to college one day. When each breadwinner lost their jobs in the manufacturing industry, they realized just how precarious their situation was.

With more education and skills, these blue-collar workers could have made a better transition. Higher education is certainly a solution for some but how will more education help the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker? These professions play a part in our complex society and the marketplace has not found a viable solution for those workers and their families.

What is the middle class? The Census Bureau defines it as the middle three quintiles of income (Note #2). What does that mean? If incomes range from $0 to $100 the range of the middle class is from $20 to $80. Some economists use $25 and $75 as the upper and lower bounds of the middle class. A hundred years ago the middle class was a small sliver of the population in the middle. They were between the working class who relied almost entirely, if not exclusively, on work for their income, and the upper class whose major source of income was not work – profits, interest, dividends and rents.

When economists talk about the middle class, it is usually the lower middle-class or working class that they use to represent the fortunes of a wide range of people with far different circumstances, education and skills. Both videos focused on that working-class segment because the stories are poignant and the solutions difficult, if not intractable.

The Golden Age of the working class was after World War II when unions were strong and blue-collar incomes grew much faster than inflation. After the productive capacity of much of developed world had been destroyed during World War II, America was the factory for the world. The workers in those factories enjoyed strong bargaining power and could command a good benefit package and wage gains from employers.

Until the Roosevelt administration established housing and mortgage programs during the decade of the Great Depression, most families had to put a third to a half down on a house and pay off the mortgage in five to ten years. The FHA (1934) and FNMA (1938) lowered those requirements to as low as 10% (Note #3). The GI bill that was passed in 1944 promised returning GIs a home for little to nothing down and low-interest long-term mortgages.  Residential construction boomed.

As the European nations and Japan recovered in the 1960s and 70s American firms were challenged by low cost imported goods. As their pricing power eroded, they became more resistant to wage and benefit demands by working-class unions. Protectionist policies guarded against competition from foreign auto makers, but consumer buying power in America was a magnet for appliances and electronics from Japan and Germany, and foodstuffs from France, Spain, Italy and Mexico (Note #4).

The 1970s was beset by a series of bitter strikes in both private industry and in government service. The benefit and wage packages that union workers had negotiated in the 50s and 60s proved uncompetitive in the revived private international marketplace. Those who could afford the higher taxes to pay city workers began to move out of the cities to the suburbs. Cities like New York suffered under successive waves of strikes by fire, police, sanitation and transportation workers. If the firefighters got a 4% raise, other city workers wanted a similar wage package.

Rather than invest in refurbishing decades-old factories, manufacturers built new factories abroad, where labor costs were much cheaper. The savings more than offset the shipping costs of finished products back to America. Those shipping costs had been drastically reduced in 1955 when a transport owner and an engineer designed a shipping container that could be stacked and survive the rigors of an ocean voyage. They gave away the patent and the world adopted the new containers (Note #5).

As the manufacturing plants in the northern states, particularly the Rust Belt, began to shutter their doors, some families moved. Many families who had bought homes now found that the value of their homes had depreciated. Some with strong ties to the community and a lack of savings struggled on at lower paying jobs. Some lost their houses, their cars, their dreams. The two families that Bill Moyers interviewed exemplified this broad trend. 

For some journalists and economists, this short-lived post-War era became a benchmark for the way it should be. That benchmark may have been a historical anomaly, an aftermath of a global war.

What is to be done? Since the Johnson Administration ushered in the War on Poverty fifty years ago, the percentage of the population in poverty has not changed (Note #2). 42% of children born into poverty remain in poverty. Either the programs have been poorly designed, or the problems are complex and resist solutions.

Will raising taxes on the rich help? Most of the capital gains go to the upper class who pay lower taxes on those gains. Is that the solution? To fund their retirement, millions of seniors each year are selling some of their IRAs and 401Ks, and incurring capital gains when they do so. Will politicians change the rules in midstream on a generation of Boomers? Old people vote in high percentages. Probably not.

Some suggest that the government stop subsidizing rich people and give that money to people who need it. This would include means testing Social Security, but also include a plethora of “gimmes” that pass unnoticed to most of us from government to those who are well-off. Some farmers receive a check from the government to not grow crops in order to control the supply. “Dear Santa, do not give me money this year.” Who is going to write that note?

Some have suggested we implement a Universal Basic Income (UBI) program, a program which would give $1000, for example, to everyone. That would be a nice subsidy for Walmart and McDonald’s who could then pay their workers even less than they do now. Some economists argue that there are even more problems (Note #6).

What about a higher Federal minimum wage? $15 is a popular suggestion on the campaign trail. A $15 wage in Los Angeles has much less buying power than it does in Alamosa, CO. Why not implement something indexed to the median wage in each area? The BLS, the same agency that produces the employment report each month, has the data to implement such an idea. Why a one size fits all minimum wage? Those who prefer local solutions are not without compassion.

History tells us that large government solutions can exacerbate the very problems they were meant to solve. The housing assistance and student loan programs are examples of the bureaucratic bramble that characterizes active Federal programs. Given that caveat, I do think that a Job Guarantee program that operated at the state and local level but was funded by the Federal government would provide stability to the more vulnerable in our work force. It would reduce the cyclical and structural unemployment that corrodes our society (Note #7). There are several proposals to implement some trial programs in the states and I support those efforts. What do you think?

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Notes:

  1. Frontline’s Two American Families and Moyers & Co. Surviving the New American Economy
  2. A 2018 Census Bureau presentation (PPT) of income and poverty in the U.S.
  3. History of Government housing programs
  4. In 1964, the Johnson Administration enacted the “chicken tax,” a 25% import tax on imported autos
  5. History of Shipping Containers and the free of patent innovation that changed international commerce
  6. Economist Daron Acemoglu argues against a UBI program
  7. Search for Job Guarantee and choose the depth that you want to explore on this topic. On Twitter, #JG for many sources.

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