I want to draw your attention to a joint report from Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute, and Brookings, “Work, Skills, Community: Restoring Opportunity for the Working Class”. I’m still making my way through the complete 136 page report. The one-page summary is here.
It does not seem to cover any new territory. A lot of the ground was covered nearly 20 years ago in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Their prescriptions are pretty quotidien: higher pay even if subsidies are required, education, opportunity zones, expanded public assistance.
I’m afraid that my view will not please a lot of people. For the last 40 years policy has been focused unerringly on the needs and wants of upper class and upper middle class Americans. Frankly, those needs and wants are destructive to the vast number of the people.
It began in the 1960s and has accelerated since. Wages per wage earner began to decline. The awful truth is that women don’t enter the workforce to pursue a career or for personal fulfillment. That’s for upper class and upper middle class women. Middle and working class women work to support their families and, as their husbands’ paychecks stagnated, declined, or vanished altogether, they went to work so their families could pay the bills. The institutions on which working class and middle class people depended, noted here:
Since the late 1970s and still today, working-class America is bearing the brunt of automation and globalization: entire industries are disappearing, and wages have been flat since the 1970s. Marriage has declined faster among the working class than in any other group, richer or poorer. Civic institutions that once sustained blue-collar enclaves—churches, union halls, neighborhood associations, the local VFW or Lions Club—are closing their doors or moving elsewhere. And as the social fabric frays, a host of new problems are arising, from opioid addiction to what Anne Case and Angus Deaton have called “deaths of despair” caused by drugs, alcohol or suicide and correlated with distress and social dysfunction.
depended on women, largely on a volunteer basis. When women were too tired or busy to run their churches, neighborhood associations, and other organization, those institutions declined. As families became viable without marriage, marriage declined.
What’s pushing wages down for ordinary people? Competition from overseas, a significant influx of immigrant workers willing to work for less, and subsidies for the well-to-do which push the costs of the services that people in the upper middle class up.
Education will do nothing for most people unless our economy creates more jobs for people with educations. Opportunity zones just move money from one pocket to another. And wage subsidies of themselves merely prevent desperation. They don’t rebuild the institutions that brought meaning to people’s lives and they don’t foster the conditions that result in the creation of more jobs that pay better.
The twelve step programs preach that the first step on the road to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. Our problem is that the “reforms” put in place over the last 40 years have left millions of casualties in their wake. What was built over hundreds of years and destroyed in the matter of a couple of generations will not be rebuilt overnight.