What Workers—Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian—Need

(Photo: Sipa USA via AP)

Airport workers on strike hold a protest seeking a $15 minimum wage at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on November 29, 2016.

All happy economies may be alike (there have been so few it’s hard to generalize), but each unhappy economy afflicts its victims differently. So it is for America’s working class, in which both minority and white workers suffer, but in different ways.

Last week, Eduardo Porter’s New York Times column propounded the notion, supported by data from the Economic Cycle Research Institute, that despite the recovery of the past half-decade, whites in aggregate still had lost jobs, while minorities had gained them. When measured against the pre-recession employment high point of November 2007, the number of employed whites, Porter wrote, is now more than 700,000 below that apogee, while the number of employed Hispanics has increased by roughly three million, Asian Americans by 1.5 million, and blacks by one million.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones quickly lodged a smart objection: The nation’s white population has flat-lined since 2007, while those of minorities have significantly increased. Factoring in those demographics, the numbers Porter reported on weren’t really all that shocking.

Problem is, Porter’s numbers actually understate the problem. Those numbers are based on Bureau of Labor Statistics racial categories, which don’t differentiate between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanic whites. The liberal Economic Policy Institute has a data set that does make that differentiation, and the numbers EPI director of research Josh Bivens came up with are sobering indeed. Between November 2007 and November 2016, Bivens found, non-Hispanic white employment shrank by a mind-boggling 4.4 million, while Hispanic employment increased by 4.8 million, Asian by 2.1 million, and black by 1.8 million.

Does that mean minority groups are thriving? Hardly. The overwhelming majority of the new jobs they’ve filled in the past decade are in the low-wage service sector. Just how low those wages are was illustrated by another report released last week, this one from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, a business-supported organization that reports annually on economic conditions in the nation’s largest county, which is home to just over 10 million people. The good news is that L.A.’s economy now has more jobs than it did at the 2007 employment peak. The bad news is what those jobs are, and what they pay.         

In 2015, the LAEDC reported, fully 43 percent of Angelinos who were 25 or older either had completed their high school educations but never attended any college, or had not even completed high school. That didn’t mean, however, that a vast slice of the workforce was under-qualified for jobs in the L.A. market. Looking at the educational and experiential requirements for all L.A.-area jobs over the next five years, the LAEDC projected that 64.3 percent will require either no more than a high school credential (29.7 percent) or not even that (34.6 percent). A scant 8.4 percent will require either a bachelor’s, a master’s, or a doctoral or professional degree.

The nation’s largest county, then, is a low-wage county becoming more so. The median yearly wage for all occupational groups in early 2016 was $39,250. In the occupational groups that the LAEDC says will grow most between now and 2020, however, median yearly wages are a good deal lower than that: $21,653 in food preparation and serving, $24,045 in home care, $27,019 in maintenance, $28,101 in sales. In Los Angeles, these are occupations chiefly held by minorities, Latinos in particular.

So, two distinct profiles of dysfunction, which reflect two aspects of the same fundamental dilemmas: the nationwide disappearance of decent-paying, working-class jobs (chiefly in the unionized sectors of manufacturing, transportation, and construction), and the proliferation of non-union, service-sector jobs, disproportionately in urban areas. That leads to a working-class divide that is both racial and geographic: Non-Hispanic whites make up 78 percent of the population of non-metropolitan areas, but just 56 percent of the population of the 100 largest urban areas, according to William Frey of the Brookings Institution.   

In general, the economic lot of minorities is still harsher than that of whites. Their unemployment rates are higher; their incomes, lower; their wealth, much lower. Because of the Great Recession, according to the Social Science Research Council, black families will have 40 percent less wealth by 2013; white families, just 31 percent less.

But these two aspects of economic dysfunction—job disappearance and shit-job creation—have different political consequences. The white workers whose communities suffered disproportionately from the first voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in November. The workers of color in urban areas voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. That’s not to say that either group’s vote was primarily or necessarily a reflection of their economic condition. Attitudes toward culture, race, and gender obviously played a huge role.

Still, Clinton’s losses in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin suggest that Democrats need to do a better job of addressing the economic concerns of those states’ working-class voters, who happen to be majority white. If they don’t, progressive senators like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who both have down-the-line progressive records on issues of race, gender, and economics, and who both are up for re-election in 2018, could be in trouble. Brown, in particular, has been the Senate’s foremost critic of the free-trade mania that has decimated his and other states, and one of the leading critics of Wall Street’s hold over corporate conduct. That should, I hope, stand him in good stead in the next election—and help convince his fellow Democrats that there remain, as Guy Molyneux documents in this article, a number of ways that Democrats can still reach out to white, working-class voters with a progressive economic program.

And yet, the effective liquidation of a decently paid working class is a problem so deep that even the best current efforts of progressives ultimately fall short. A $15 minimum wage is a spectacular achievement in states and localities where fast-food workers recently made just $8 an hour, but a $15 minimum wage annualizes to just a $30,000-a-year income, assuming the recipient is a full-time worker. It’s not much of an achievement at all in those non-metropolitan regions where jobs are few and getting fewer. What the Democrats really need to develop is a genuine full-employment policy—short of which, both the quantity and quality of jobs will invariably fall short.

It is a mark of capitalism’s current deep malaise that full employment—which inherently increases workers’ bargaining power—has now been supplanted as a cause for some on the left by governmental provision of a universal basic income, which not only does nothing for workers’ bargaining power, but presupposes that there will be fewer and fewer workers. That’s not to say that even envisioning full employment these days isn’t an intellectual challenge of the first order. But if progressive want to build their credibility with underpaid urban minorities, and restore at least some of their credibility with out-of-the-job-market, non-urban white workers, they will need to think deeply and creatively about how to get to full employment.

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