March 14, 2021
by Steve Stofka
Some liberal economists promote government welfare policies that would enable one earner to support a household. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are champions of the idea that America was once a nation of one earner households. Does the data support their claims? No. But careful presentation of the data perpetuates a myth that forms the bedrock of a class of liberalism called welfare liberalism.
In the 20 years following World War 2, most of the world’s manufacturing capacity was in the U.S. Workers had greater bargaining power and union membership grew. The number of workers per household dipped slightly, then returned to more customary levels. Was there ever a prevalence of one-earner households? No. It is a myth.
In 1966, hours worked per week in manufacturing industries peaked at 41.6, (AWHMAN see endnote). Many dads worked overtime to support their working-class families. There was more overtime available because the U.S. was the manufacturing capital of the world. When the youngest children started school, mom often took a part-time job to bring in extra income. Only a small percent of families could live on a 40-hour per week paycheck.
In the late 1960s manufacturing jobs were 28% of all full-time jobs (MANEMP); today it is 10%. Rarely discussed is the decline in office and administrative workers from 18% in the early 1980s to 11% today (OFFICE). Some of these were entry jobs that helped young workers develop skills. A woman might leave an administrative job to raise young children, then return to a similar job when the children reached school age. The decline began in the early 1990s as computers became more affordable and computer programs could do routine bookkeeping tasks. That percentage decline represents 10.5 million workers at pre-pandemic employment levels, more than the current number of unemployed workers.
Technological improvements change the mix of skills needed in the job market. Almost 2 million full-time workers are employed in the software industry (Software). Many more data entry workers could be employed if governments updated their archaic system architectures. The pandemic revealed how antiquated many state employment systems are. Because they did not have integrated claim verification built into their systems, many were able to file false claims using data gained from data breaches of private companies in years past. State systems could not handle the extra load of unemployment claims.
Our founding documents are based in part on the 17th century writings of John Locke. In his Second Treatise of Government, he wrote that power arises from duty; the power that parents have over children arises from their duty to take care of their children (58:1). Some people may extend that power and duty relationship to the government and a nation’s citizens. Two groups may argue over taxes, regulations, and benefits when the underlying argument is whether governments have some duty to take care of their citizens because it has some power over them.
This pandemic has shown the extent of government power. When states and cities shut down private businesses for public health reasons, this aroused a centuries old debate about the extent of government power. In Plato’s time 2500 years ago, Athenian citizens first rejected government authority and refused military service. That independent spirit contributed to their defeat against Sparta where all citizens were expected to serve two years military service. 2000 years ago, Roman citizens scrawled graffiti on their bridges and refused to join military campaigns to establish yet another colony. In any century, a state enacts laws and exercises powers that are repugnant to some of its citizens. What is the extent of that power and those laws?
We cherish our myths, but they confuse our debates. The one-earner household is a mid-century favorite for some. For others it is that America’s founding was the first time in history that people established their freedom in relation to their government. Each generation thinks that it is at a special point in history, just like children do. We reject the notion that there is a circularity to our history. Through the centuries we revisit these debates about duty, power, rights and responsibilities. We tell ourselves that generations in the past never dealt with these issues, that it’s all different now. Yes, the historical context is different each century, but the central issues change little because the human spirit is an enduring bedrock that forms our institutions.
AWHMAN, Federal Reserve (FRED) Series: Average weekly manufacturing hours surpassed the 1966 peak under the Obama and Trump administrations.
MANEMP / LNS12500000: Manufacturing jobs divided by total employees who usually work full-time. These numbers come from different monthly surveys.
OFFICE: Office and administrative worker series divided by total employment, LNU02032207 / PAYEMS Series.
Software: Developers, applications and systems software LEU0254477200A series