What is the Crash Generation?

Apr 29, 2013Nona Willis Aronowitz

Down but not out, Millennials who came of age during the Great Recession could reshape the American economy and society.

The economy is personal. It colors our decisions about everything: when to have kids, what city to move to, who to vote for, who to sleep with. And nobody knows this better than the biggest generation in history: the Millennials. These 80 million Americans have come of age during the worst economic recession since the Depression, an experience that will have profound repercussions on our lives—and our political consciousness.

Down but not out, Millennials who came of age during the Great Recession could reshape the American economy and society.

The economy is personal. It colors our decisions about everything: when to have kids, what city to move to, who to vote for, who to sleep with. And nobody knows this better than the biggest generation in history: the Millennials. These 80 million Americans have come of age during the worst economic recession since the Depression, an experience that will have profound repercussions on our lives—and our political consciousness.

I call us the Crash Generation. For many of us in our twenties, 2008 was a period awash in exhilarating highs and terrifying lows. The words “depression,” “economic crisis,” “mass layoffs,” and “foreclosures,” along with “hope,” “change,” and “Obama,” all clogged the headlines and made their way into whiskey-fueled party conversations. Washington and the media had never been so frank about the cataclysmic proportions of a financial crash. And a candidate had never kicked young voters into such high gear like Barack Obama, who seemed to reflect the seismic demographic shift our generation was heralding. The mythic American dream-bubbles were bursting for young people at the exact moment we had begun to wield our political influence. That second half of 2008 was our JFK assassination. Our Vietnam. Our Great Depression. 

Study after study finds that Millennials are “materialistic” or obsessed with money. But really we're obsessed with the money we don’t have; put in political terms, we’re class-conscious. Thanks to Occupy Wall Street and Mitt Romney’s slipups, the concept of income inequality is finally part of the public conversation. The economic patterns of the past few decades, with the financial crisis as their crescendo, have yielded an atmosphere ripe for a youth-led social movement that hinges on our bottom lines. Because of our sheer numbers, we have enormous potential to transform waves into tsunamis, and we have already flexed our political muscle in two elections. Those of us who came of age when the bubble burst, particularly the downwardly mobile “privileged poor,” have a tangible common experience, a renewed indignation.

But too often, this indignation often has nowhere to go, and is enveloped in our frenetic lives of multiple jobs, demoralizing underemployment, or joblessness—the constant physical and emotional stress of keeping our heads above water. Years later, the status quo has not budged. We haven’t done much to shrink the income gap or encourage upward mobility. We haven’t gotten our leaders to address anemic state budgets, deregulation, unions’ decline, freelancers’ precarity, shrinking wages, student debt, or the insane cost of living in major cities. All those economic pressures have primed this era for an economic shift. Yet those same pressures limit our freedom to protest or push for policy changes. In other words, we’re pissed—but we’re paralyzed by the very forces we’re pissed about.

Right now, most of the permanent underclass feels politically frozen: When one missed paycheck means descending into poverty without a safety net, unions and political activism seem like a low priority. Educated young people are frozen, too—caught in the privileged-poor paradox. Our meager (or nonexistent) paychecks incite righteous anger—especially when we think of our middle class parents’ luck at their age—but they also choke our very ability to organize, create, and take risks. As our wages fall, our degrees lose value, prices of food and rent rise, and workdays expand, we have less and less time to read a book, to join a rally in the next town over, to hop a bus to Washington, to even have a hours-long discussion about politics with our friends. Most Millennials aren’t starving, Great Depression-style, but they are starved for a low cost of living and a baseline of economic freedom.

Here's the good news: For every 10 twentysomethings seized with frustration, there’s one pushing the conversation forward and coming up with compelling solutions, however flawed or nascent. This seething discontent signals the start of a major shift. The fizzling of Occupy Wall Street, for instance, shouldn’t depress us; Roosevelt Institute fellow Dorian Warren recently reminded me that if this is our civil rights movement, we’re only in 1957—a year after the Montgomery bus boycott. So far, our empty wallets and our denial have hindered our ability to meaningfully influence policy, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen soon.

Some people think that entrepreneurship, not government policy, will save Millennials. The truth is, not everyone has the support and connections to launch their own business or score a job at a scrappy start-up. Besides, start-up culture and economic reform aren’t mutually exclusive. In a post-recession era, both social change and entrepreneurism stem from being able to live securely and cheaply. A 2008 study from the RAND Corporation found evidence of "entrepreneurship lock," where workers resist leaving firms offering health care due to the high premiums of the individual health insurance market. Compare this reticence to places like Norway: When journalist Max Chafkin visited the country in 2010, he reported on a spate of Norwegian entrepreneurs who not only were happy to pay high taxes, but attributed their penchant for risk-taking to a strong social safety net. (There are also more entrepreneurs per capita in Norway than in the United States. Same with Canada, Denmark, and Switzerland.)

Millennials are starting to realize that if their lives are going to improve, there needs to be policy that addresses unemployment, student debt, and income inequality. Young people like the ones striking outside McDonald’s in New York, or the students who won a minimum wage hike in San Jose, or the ones in Roosevelt’s Pipeline and Campus Network across the country—they’re all updating historic social movements (and the policies they’ve pushed) that have improved the lives of middle and working class Americans. 

The future movers and shakers of the Crash Generation have a modern sensibility. We’re Internet natives. We’re optimists. We believe in community and the “sharing economy.” We’ve all but settled the culture wars. But we also have faith in the idea of government, if not its current reality, and we’re not afraid to engage with successful historical models.

Nona Willis Aronowitz is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow. Join her tomorrow night at the Roosevelt Institute for a Crash Generation salon on "Why Millennials Should Care About Family Policy," with guest speaker Sharon Lerner of Demos. She will also be moderating a panel on paving the path to good jobs at A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency on June 4th.

 

Woman looking for work image via Shutterstock.com

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What's the Best Way to Help the Long-Term Unemployed? Full Employment.

Apr 24, 2013Mike Konczal

What's the best way to help the long-term unemployed? There's new concern about how difficult it is for the long-term unemployed to find jobs in light of an interesting study by Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Boston Fed and PhD candidate. Ghayad sent out resumes that were identical except for how long the candidate was unemployed, and the longer they were unemployed, the less likely it was they would get called back. Matthew O'Brien has a great writeup of the study here, and there's additional thoughts from Megan McArdle, Paul Krugman, Felix Salmon, and Matt Yglesias.

The impact of long-term unemployment on human lives is very real, and I think the government should be combating it using every tool it has. However, I want to push back on a few of the economic ideas that tend to hover in the background of these discussions; specifically, the idea that we should consider the long-term unemployed uniquely in trouble in this economy. Because, based on my interpretation of the evidence, the best approach to handling this problem is to aim for full employment.

It's well known that it is harder for those who have been out of the labor force the longest to find jobs. It would be weird if Ghayad hadn't found that result. There is a large debate in the literature about whether this is driven by employers or job candidates, and Ghayad provides a very useful study finding that employers are a key part here.

But let's look at the likelihood of finding a job in three different economic scenarios (2000, 2007, and 2012) by duration of unemployment:

But notice that when the economy is much stronger, as it was in 2000 when unemployment averaged 4 percent, the rate at which the long-term unemployed find jobs jumps up. Let's zoom in on the last category, the job-finding rate of those who have been searching for a job for 53 weeks or longer, and chart it back to 1995. (Since the data, provided by the BLS, is not seasonally adjusted, the number here is a 12-month rolling average.)

As you can see, it's much easier for the long-term unemployed to find jobs when there's a tight labor market, like there was in the late 1990s. This rate collapses in a recession, and with years of 7+ percent unemployment, it has stayed depressed.

A lot of people are drawing conclusions that something has broken in long-term unemployment based on a previous paper by Rand Ghayad, where he disaggregates the Beveridge Curve by unemployment duration. I've been critical of that paper. I think, strictly speaking, that the disaggregation just tells us that the long-term unemployed have become a larger percentage of the unemployed, which we knew. Meanwhile, the labor market is depressed for everyone, even short-term unemployed (also see SF Fed for more evidence of this). As the long-term unemployed are less likely to drop out of the labor market than in normal times right now, the dramatic increase in the long-term unemployed hasn't turned into a large drop in labor force participation like many worry about.

We should do things that are smart policies that target the long-term unemployed. Amy Taub of Demos has done convincing work on why ending credit checks as part of the job interview process would be a good idea. Extending unemployment insurance is also important. But the idea that we should change course away from boosting the general economy strikes me as a bad idea. The long-term unemployed experience the worst impact of a generally weak economy. But its that weak economy that is doing the damage. If unemployment was actually brought down, which we could do with more expansonary policy, then employers couldn't afford to be so choosy.

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What's the best way to help the long-term unemployed? There's new concern about how difficult it is for the long-term unemployed to find jobs in light of an interesting study by Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Boston Fed and PhD candidate. Ghayad sent out resumes that were identical except for how long the candidate was unemployed, and the longer they were unemployed, the less likely it was they would get called back. Matthew O'Brien has a great writeup of the study here, and there's additional thoughts from Megan McArdle, Paul Krugman, Felix Salmon, and Matt Yglesias.

The impact of long-term unemployment on human lives is very real, and I think the government should be combating it using every tool it has. However, I want to push back on a few of the economic ideas that tend to hover in the background of these discussions; specifically, the idea that we should consider the long-term unemployed uniquely in trouble in this economy. Because, based on my interpretation of the evidence, the best approach to handling this problem is to aim for full employment.

It's well known that it is harder for those who have been out of the labor force the longest to find jobs. It would be weird if Ghayad hadn't found that result. There is a large debate in the literature about whether this is driven by employers or job candidates, and Ghayad provides a very useful study finding that employers are a key part here.

But let's look at the likelihood of finding a job in three different economic scenarios (2000, 2007, and 2012) by duration of unemployment:

But notice that when the economy is much stronger, as it was in 2000 when unemployment averaged 4 percent, the rate at which the long-term unemployed find jobs jumps up. Let's zoom in on the last category, the job-finding rate of those who have been searching for a job for 53 weeks or longer, and chart it back to 1995. (Since the data, provided by the BLS, is not seasonally adjusted, the number here is a 12-month rolling average.)

As you can see, it's much easier for the long-term unemployed to find jobs when there's a tight labor market, like there was in the late 1990s. This rate collapses in a recession, and with years of 7+ percent unemployment, it has stayed depressed.

A lot of people are drawing conclusions that something has broken in long-term unemployment based on a previous paper by Rand Ghayad, where he disaggregates the Beveridge Curve by unemployment duration. I've been critical of that paper. I think, strictly speaking, that the disaggregation just tells us that the long-term unemployed have become a larger percentage of the unemployed, which we knew. Meanwhile, the labor market is depressed for everyone, even short-term unemployed (also see SF Fed for more evidence of this). As the long-term unemployed are less likely to drop out of the labor market than in normal times right now, the dramatic increase in the long-term unemployed hasn't turned into a large drop in labor force participation like many worry about.

We should do things that are smart policies that target the long-term unemployed. Amy Taub of Demos has done convincing work on why ending credit checks as part of the job interview process would be a good idea. Extending unemployment insurance is also important. But the idea that we should change course away from boosting the general economy strikes me as a bad idea. The long-term unemployed experience the worst impact of a generally weak economy. But its that weak economy that is doing the damage. If unemployment was actually brought down, which we could do with more expansonary policy, then employers couldn't afford to be so choosy.

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The WPA: A Flawed Model for Women, but an Inspiration for Progress

Apr 9, 2013Andrea Flynn

The New Deal left women behind, but it proved government can be a champion for the economically downtrodden.

The participation of women in the American work force has expanded dramatically in the 78 years since the Roosevelt administration launched the WPA to provide jobs to Americans out of work and on relief. Today women comprise nearly half the work force and typically work through the life cycle, not episodically, before and after childrearing, which for so long was considered their principal occupation.

The New Deal left women behind, but it proved government can be a champion for the economically downtrodden.

The participation of women in the American work force has expanded dramatically in the 78 years since the Roosevelt administration launched the WPA to provide jobs to Americans out of work and on relief. Today women comprise nearly half the work force and typically work through the life cycle, not episodically, before and after childrearing, which for so long was considered their principal occupation.

Today married, as well as single, women play a critical role in the U.S. economy. In nearly half the country’s dual income families, women earn as much or more than men. And as a percentage of the total, there are many more single women heading households today. For these reasons, today’s employment policies must be sensitive to gender in ways they never have been before.

Women were an afterthought of policymakers back in the Roosevelt years. Prevailing cultural mores still viewed work among married women as a threat to the sanctity and moral fabric of the family. New Dealers actually passed legislation (over the objection of Eleanor Roosevelt and others with feminist leanings) that prevented two workers in any one family from claiming a government salary, which meant that women during the Depression often were fired or forced to quit their jobs.

Women actually claimed only 13.5 percent of the 8.5 million total jobs created by the WPA, the majority of them in traditionally female occupations such as sewing, childcare and eldercare, teaching and education, etc. No surprise, these jobs paid less than other positions occupied by men, with WPA salaries ranging from only $20 to nearly $100 dollars per month. And most of those jobs, in fact, went to women who were divorced, widowed or unmarried.

With the advent of World War II, record numbers of women entered the work force to fill jobs left by men conscripted to fight the war. Despite postwar conventions that again celebrated domesticity and pushed women out of positions reclaimed by returning veterans, the war actually ignited a behavioral shift that forever reshaped the U.S. labor force.

In 1948, women comprised 29 percent of the labor force overall, and 17 percent of married mothers worked outside the home. Most of them were part of families living at the edge of poverty and needing two salaries, but some were in the professions and in business and simply rejected prevailing values. Those numbers have steadily increased over the last 60 years. Today, women make up nearly 47 percent of the labor force, with more than 79 percent of mothers now working.

But old ways die hard. Women may make up nearly half the American work force, but they still face an ever-increasing number of obstacles to balancing work and family and to achieving economic security. A report recently released by the Ms. Foundation for Women illustrates the myriad challenges facing women workers:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists more than 440 occupations. Four out of five women are concentrated in only 20 of these jobs, most of them traditionally female roles such as secretaries, home health care and childcare workers, teachers, waitresses, etc. that barely afford women a living wage.
  • Approximately 63 percent of minimum- and sub-minimum-wage workers are women.
  • The recent recession has had a particularly negative impact on women. By 2011, women had regained only 11 percent of jobs lost (compared to men’s 24 percent), and by the end of 2012, the women had regained 46 percent (compared to men’s 50 percent).
  • Of families headed by single mothers, 28.7 percent — 4 million of them — live in poverty compared with 13 percent (or 670,000) of those headed by men.
  • Underemployment is a serious issue facing women workers. Approximately 26 percent of working women are in part-time jobs, which do not provide essential benefits and job security.

Though not sufficiently attentive to the needs of women at the time, Roosevelt’s New Deal and WPA exemplified the role government can and should play in guaranteeing a basic floor of well being for all Americans. We would be wise to revisit those ideals today as we think about how to protect and advance women workers across the United States.

President Obama has suggested many such initiatives: universal pre-school; better job training to equip students to pursue trades; a historic expansion of Medicaid and private health insurance that will guarantee all women basic preventative services (including reproductive health care and family planning); and pay equity and a raise in the minimum wage.

Indeed, the first piece of legislation President Obama signed upon entering office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which overturned the 180-day statute of limitations for women to contest pay discrimination. Today, in commemoration of National Pay Equity Day, President Obama said:

Wage inequality undermines the promise of fairness and opportunity upon which our country was founded… Our country has come a long way toward ensuring everyone gets a fair shot at opportunity, no matter who you are or where you come from. But our journey will not be complete until our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and our daughters are treated equally in the workplace and always see an honest day's work rewarded with honest wages. 

There are other significant steps we can take:

  • Congress should pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation that has been introduced a number of times since 2009 but has failed to secure support from both chambers of Congress. The legislation – an update to the 1963 Equal Pay Act – would prohibit employers from paying a man more than a woman for the same job and would prevent employers from punishing women who call attention to pay disparities.
  • We should ensure that women who work as nannies, home health care workers, housekeepers, etc. – positions that are a major backbone to our economy – receive a fair wage and benefits necessary to lead healthy, financially secure lives.
  • We should ensure that all workers are guaranteed sick days and parental leave so their families don’t play second fiddle to a job.
  • We should task our best and brightest with creating innovative job training programs (and job creation initiatives) that will enable women to move beyond the 20 or so occupations the majority currently occupy. And we should think critically about how the federal government can provide better job security for women in part-time and seasonal jobs.
  • We should create affordable childcare programs that would allow women to know their children are being well-cared for while they earn a living to support their families. This would also give women greater flexibility to occupy full-time, more stable positions.

FDR may not have offered women their rightful place in the New Deal’s employment programs. But today we know better. Only by lifting the barriers that prevent women from achieving real economic equity, can we regain real security for American families and re-establish our country’s stronghold as a global economic leader. 

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Where There's a Will, There's a WPA: Stopping the Slow-Motion Jobs Disaster

Apr 8, 2013Richard Kirsch

We can create the political will to tackle the jobs crisis by advancing a progressive economic narrative.

The question we must ask today, as we remember the Works Progress Administration is: why isn’t there the political will to take dramatic steps to address today’s jobs emergency?

We can create the political will to tackle the jobs crisis by advancing a progressive economic narrative.

The question we must ask today, as we remember the Works Progress Administration is: why isn’t there the political will to take dramatic steps to address today’s jobs emergency?

Let’s start with the obvious; there was a far greater share of Americans unemployed in the Great Depression. In 1934, unemployment peaked at 24.9%.  One-out-of-four people officially out of work is much more of a crisis than one-out-of ten (9.6%), the peak in the current recession in 2010. The impact is even greater than two-and-a-half times, as such a huge drop in consumer spending means that marginal businesses able to survive 10% unemployment rates were swept away in the Depression. And during the Depression – much more than now – it was impossible not to know people whose lives had been devastated.

The other obvious difference is that we have cushioned the impact on the unemployed through the establishment of New Deal programs, notably unemployment insurance, which is providing income to half of the more than 12 million people who have been laid off, and Social Security, which has helped older workers unable to find a job. In a broader sense, the bailout of the financial sector in 2009 was a lesson learned from the New Deal, stopping the Great Recession from becoming a second Great Depression.

For most middle-class Americans, the Great Recession was not a sudden shock to a prosperous lifestyle. It was a deepening of a three-decade long trend of families seeing their incomes and lifestyles squeezed by stagnant wages and eroding benefits. Median household income increased in real terms by only 14% from 1972 to 2007.  During this period, the richest Americans captured most of the benefits of economic growth: their share of national pre-tax income of the top one-in-a thousand quadrupled from 3% to 12%. Much of the meager growth through 2007 was lost in the Great Recession; by 2011 median household income had dropped below 1996 levels.

Of course, the Great Recession did real harm to tens of millions of Americans, as Wall Street took away their retirement savings and banks took away their homes. The more than 20 million who are out of work or working less than they would like feel the pain every day. However, most people whose homes were foreclosed are not on the streets, and the long-term unemployed are scraping by and aren’t in bread lines. Additionally, the retirement crisis — another slow-moving crisis — represents a long-term crippling of prospects rather than an immediate disaster.

The New York Times coverage of Friday’s weak jobs report highlights the slow motion nature of today’s jobs crisis. The Times focused on a report by the National Employment Law Project, written by Roosevelt Institute Fellow Annette Bernhardt, that revealed most of the new jobs emerging from the Great Recession pay low wages. The Times article also highlighted the persistent growth in temporary jobs, and concluded with a quote from NELP Executive Director Christine Owens, underscoring the nature of today’s job crisis:

“This seems to be a long-term sleeper crisis too, as we think about long-term unemployed workers who are in midlife and older workers who are likely dipping into retirement savings in order to stay afloat. We’re setting ourselves up for somewhere, 10 years down the road, when a lot of retirees who didn’t expect to live in poverty are going to be in poverty.”

For those of us who understand that we do have a jobs emergency today — even if it is a slow-motion disaster — the question is, how do we create the political will to address the underlying crisis? The answer is to make jobs the central issue in the bigger story about the economy, so that the concerns of the unemployed are the same as the great majority of Americans who are employed.

The economy and jobs remains by far the top issue of concern to Americans. As a March Pew Research poll found, “Despite substantial public awareness of recent gains in the stock market and rebounding real-estate values, the percentage saying economic conditions will get worse over the next year has risen to its highest point in nearly eight years.”

We need to be consistently telling our story: the crushing of the middle class did not happen by accident. It is a result of decisions to cut taxes for the wealthy, stop investing in infrastructure, destroy the ability of unions to organize, saddle college students with huge debts, and deregulate Wall Street. We need to remind people that the stock market is at record levels because powerful corporations are making huge profits by cutting wages and benefits and shipping jobs overseas.

We need to champion our vision of an economy driven by working families and the middle class. We need to show how we can rebuild the middle class by deciding together to provide “good jobs for everyone in America.” We should put forth a bold program, which addresses all three aspects for our vision:

  • Good Jobs. We can assure that every job – private and public – pays enough to support a family, with decent wages, health and retirement benefits, and family-friendly leave policies. That will mean new wage standards, such as a higher minimum wage and paid sick days; social insurance programs for paid family leave and retirements; and modernization of labor laws so workers can effectively organize unions again.
  • Jobs for Everyone. We can create tens of millions of jobs for our future. Jobs for a green economy of energy independence. Jobs to rebuild our infrastructure and create a new infrastructure for the information age. Jobs to educate our children and take care of our seniors. Government must both make direct job investments and pave the way for businesses to create good jobs.
  • Good Jobs in America. We can create good jobs in America by enacting fair trade and currency policies, as well as government purchase of American-made goods and an end to tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.

There are promising efforts already taking place to build a movement around these issues — efforts to innovate new approaches to organizing low-wage workers; campaigns to press for higher minimum wages and paid sick days; and local initiatives to create good paying green jobs. Progressives in Congress have put forth comprehensive jobs bills and President Obama is touring the country asking for investment in infrastructure.

Building a movement that is big enough to address the jobs emergency will require tackling the basic tenants of our financialized, trickle-down economic paradigm. For everyday Americans, the stakes could not be higher. We have no choice but to build the political will to create a 21st century America that works for all of us. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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Is the WPA Invisible to Millennials?

Apr 8, 2013Elizabeth Pearson

The products of the WPA are all around us, but their history has been erased.

The products of the WPA are all around us, but their history has been erased.

The fact that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) is today remembered as an exceptional moment in American economic policy is evidence of the serious blind spots Americans have developed in the way we think about government. Even Millennials, who have experienced perhaps the worst impacts of the current recession, have often celebrated entrepreneurship as a solution to their employment woes, rather than calling for the robust public action that has always been a part of effective responses to economic crisis.

But making the case that addressing the jobs crisis requires much stronger public investment will have to go beyond advocating for larger stimulus packages or revived public employment programs — we must also challenge myths of economic recovery, both past and present, that render activist government invisible.

The unfamiliarity of the WPA’s activist-government legacy is startling in light of its truly vast scope. In his history of New Deal public works projects, historian Jason Scott Smith notes that in addition to employing 8.5 million people, the WPA built over 480 airports, 78,000 bridges, and almost 40,000 public buildings. In my own town of Berkeley, California, the list of WPA projects is long: two city parks, several high-school buildings, post-office murals, the former University of California Press building (now being renovated to house the Berkeley Art Museum), a city library, and the planting of 15,000 trees.

With so many tangible reminders of the impacts of public investment right in front of our eyes and under our feet, why isn’t the memory of government economic intervention  more present? Part of the answer lies in a much broader erasure of government from our lives — from the mis-recognition of publicly-subsidized success as individual initiative to the deliberate concealing of government spending as private savings. Political scientist Suzanne Mettler calls this new type of social infrastructure “the submerged state”: invisible benefits delivered to citizens through the tax code or as subsidies to private companies rather than as more visible direct spending. The home mortgage interest deduction is a (very expensive) government spending program, but most Americans would be truly puzzled to hear that they live in publicly subsidized housing.

Given this context, it’s no wonder that many Millennials believe that entrepreneurship, creativity, and technological innovation will provide the foundation for economic recovery. But the start-up economy can no more build 78,000 bridges than it can create the close to 9 million jobs needed to match growth in the labor force since the start of the recession. Well-designed public policies alone will not convince young people — or Americans more generally — of the need for a progressive economic agenda modeled on the WPA. We must also literally map the interventions of the past. Only by making the legacy of public investment more visible can we push back against myths that mute the powerful role government has repeatedly played in leading economic recovery.

Elizabeth Pearson is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley.

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The WPA Had a Low Price Tag but a Lasting Legacy

Apr 8, 2013Ellen Chesler

The WPA looks like a small investment by today's standards, but it remade the country.

There’s hardly a community in the United States without a park, bridge, school, or library constructed by the WPA. Just think of the built legacy right here in New York: Hunter’s College’s handsome mid-century modern building on Park Avenue; LaGuardia Airport; the bucolic parkways, enduring beachfront facilities and swimming pools of Robert Moses; stunning murals in public spaces throughout the city.

The WPA looks like a small investment by today's standards, but it remade the country.

There’s hardly a community in the United States without a park, bridge, school, or library constructed by the WPA. Just think of the built legacy right here in New York: Hunter’s College’s handsome mid-century modern building on Park Avenue; LaGuardia Airport; the bucolic parkways, enduring beachfront facilities and swimming pools of Robert Moses; stunning murals in public spaces throughout the city.

So it is actually surprising to learn on this anniversary that the entire federal appropriation for the legislation in 1935 was only $4.9 billion. And total spending across the country reached only $13.4 billion before the program expired in 1943, when wartime conscription and the recovery of private industry and manufacturing finally ended the unemployment crisis brought on by the Great Depression.

Of course, money went a lot further back then. Salaries at 30 hours per week were pegged to prevailing wages and varied considerably by region, ranging from $20 to $100 per month. Federal spending on some WPA projects also leveraged state and local funds, adding by one estimate up to another 10-30 percent in investment. All together the program funded some 8 million jobs and put a meaningful dent in the number of unemployed who were looking for and able to work.

This was far from a foundation for state socialism or a “seed bed for Communists,” as some of the program’s strongest critics on the right then described it. Spending was also, by and large, not politically motivated or determined by partisanship, as many feared it would be – with jobs distributed across party lines and, just as meaningfully, across ethnic and racial divides, even in the south. To placate unions skeptics on the left, no formal job training was allowed, and yet evaluations of projects demonstrated high levels of efficiency and little corruption or waste.

Yet the WPA was most definitely a watershed in the history of American state building. The country’s entire GDP was only $860 billion in 1935. Of that, a mere 5 percent or so represented total government spending, and most of that money paid for local school teachers, police, fire, and sanitation.

Federal Social Security expenditures were just ramping up. Defense spending was still negligible, with U.S. foreign policy focused mainly on being a “good neighbor” as FDR memorably put it. Even as the president promised to invest in public works and social welfare to reboot the economy, he also committed to rebalance the budget, and by attempting to do so in his second term actually prolonged the economic downturn. More public works, not less, would have been a good thing, stimulating and vastly expanding the private economy, as World War II wound up doing only a few years later.

Today, U.S. government spending, inclusive of local, state, and federal, domestic, foreign, and military expenditures, represents some 40 percent of our giant $13.67 trillion GDP. Years of Republican presidencies notwithstanding, we live in a mixed-economy and a country remade by Franklin Roosevelt.

This 78th anniversary of the WPA inspires us to find in our history a model for increased investment in public works today, perhaps leveraging the private sector, not just hard-strapped states and municipalities. With the WPA as a model, federal resources can easily capitalize a U.S. infrastructure bank, which could in turn raise capital in markets across the globe. The financial structure is not complicated. All we need is the political will.

Might it be helpful to remind deficit hawks that Roosevelt was reelected in 1936 with 60 percent of the popular vote and 98 percent of the electoral vote in 1936, with a budget in deficit but the WPA underway?

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

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To Build a Nation and a People: FDR and the WPA

Apr 8, 2013David B. Woolner

Today's Congress needs to step up as it did in the 1930s to address high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure.

Today's Congress needs to step up as it did in the 1930s to address high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure.

To those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order. Some people try to tell me that we must make up our minds that for the future we shall permanently have millions of unemployed… But…I stand or fall by my refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed. On the contrary, we must make it a national principle that we will not tolerate a large army of unemployed and that we will arrange our national economy to end our present unemployment as soon as we can and then to take wise measures against its return. I do not want to think that it is the destiny of any American to remain permanently on relief rolls.—Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 30, 1934

One of the most alarming statistics about America’s persistently high unemployment rate over the past four years is the large number of long-term unemployed. Current estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the total number of these largely forgotten workers at 4.8 million people—or roughly 40 percent of the total number of jobless Americans. Unlike previous recessions, where there was a good deal of movement in and out of the job market, loss of employment is much more serious in today’s Great Recession, as an individual’s chances of getting back to work are much lower. This leads to what one recent article terms a “loss of skills, loss of trust, and loss of networks,” all of which exacerbates the problem.

Worse still, there seems to be little political will to tackle this problem in Washington, as any serious effort to address the issue of the long-term unemployed has been sidelined by the endless budget debates in Congress and the sky-is-falling rhetoric of the extreme right, which remains ideologically opposed to government intervention in the economy. Perhaps the great symbol of this callous indifference can be found in the fact that while the recent sequester did not result in any loss of pay among the members of Congress, the long-term unemployed will see their benefits cut by 10 percent.

In the meantime, a recent report by the American Society for Civil Engineers notes that while there has been a slight improvement in the overall state of America’s infrastructure in the past four years, the current state of our nation’s roads, bridges, water systems, energy grid, and other transportation networks remains dismally low—receiving a grade of D+ as opposed to the nearly failing grade of D- four years ago. Thanks to this persistent neglect and Congress’s reluctance to appropriate the funds needed to fix our crumbling roads and other facilities, the U.S. now ranks 25th in the world in terms of infrastructure, far behind the rest of the industrialized world.

This juxtaposition of long-term unemployment and a failing infrastructure is not unlike the situation that Franklin Roosevelt faced in 1935 when, in a bold and unprecedented effort to alleviate the suffering of the long-term unemployed, FDR pushed Congress to pass the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act. It was through this piece of legislation passed 78 years ago today that Congress appropriated the funds FDR needed to launch the most ambitious public works program in American history—the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.

As the generation that lived through the Great Depression passes away, fewer and fewer Americans may be aware of what a great debt this nation owes to this remarkable government program. Indeed, the WPA not only employed 8.5 million people, it also built much of the infrastructure we still use today. How many New Yorkers, for example, are aware that the WPA is responsible for the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel, Tri-borough Bridge, the Belt, Grand Central, and Henry Hudson Parkways, the East River (FDR) Drive, or LaGuardia Airport? How many Chicagoans know that Midway Airport and much of Lake Shore Drive were built by the WPA? What about the fabled “river walk” of San Antonio, Texas? Do the residents of this community know that this critical piece and driver of much of their local economy was conceived and constructed by WPA architects and engineers? Are the people of New Jersey aware that they owe the Palisades Parkway to the WPA? What about those of us who have enjoyed the beauty of a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina – are we aware that it too was built by the WPA? And what about Los Angeles International Airport or the Glendale Viaduct and countless other public works projects in California? Or the many WPA constructed buildings, parks, and other facilities constructed in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest?

This list could go on and on, for before it was through the WPA would construct nearly 600,000 miles of rural roads, 67,000 miles of urban streets, 122,000 bridges, 1,000 tunnels, 1,050 airfields, 500 water treatment plants, 1,500 sewage treatment plants, 36,900 schools, 2,552 hospitals, 2,700 firehouses, and nearly 20,000 other state, county, and local government buildings. Most importantly, it would also give meaningful employment to millions of skilled and unskilled workers, providing our nation with the infrastructure it needed to become the most efficient and productive economy in the world and the long-term unemployed with the one thing they needed above all else—a job.

Seventy-eight years ago, our leaders in Congress had the courage and vision to engage in what FDR called “bold, persistent, experimentation.” In the face of the worst economic crisis in our history, they came to recognize that there are times when government itself must step in to provide employment if the free market fails to do so. They had no plans “to take the country down the path to socialism” as some critics charged, or to make the WPA into a permanent institution. What they did see was a need—a critical need to provide employment and to secure the skills of an entire generation of workers, juxtaposed with an equally important need to bring America’s rickety 19th century infrastructure into the modern world. They understood that this would cost money, but they also understood that in the long run this investment—even if it required deficit spending—would pay off.

They were right. Just ask any member of the “greatest generation” who lived through the seemingly massive federal investments and spending of the 1930s and 40s and then went on to enjoy the largest expansion of the American middle class in our nation’s history. Or ask yourself, the next time you land at LaGuardia Airport or enjoy an evening out among the many shops, cafes, and restaurants that cluster around San Antonio’s River Walk.

If today’s Congress had the same vision and courage that existed in Washington in 1935, it would see that with nearly 5 million people suffering the ill effects of long-term unemployment, and with an infrastructure that is now ranked 25th in the world, the least it could do is get behind President Obama’s nearly forgotten call for a modest $50 billion in spending for infrastructure. But unfortunately it does not appear that today’s Congress—particularly the conservative membership of the House—possesses anything like the vision of its counterparts in 1935. This is very bad news, for as FDR remarked about the “generation of self-seekers” that brought the country to ruin in 1933, “they have no vision, and when there is no vision, the people perish.”

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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Putting a Check on Using Credit Reports Against Job Seekers

Mar 12, 2013

The economy plummets. You lose your job. Soon, you start to find it hard to make ends meet. You start putting things on your credit card. Then you fall behind in your card payments. All the while you’ve been desperately looking for a new job. Little do you know that being behind on credit card payments may stand between you and a job – the very thing that could get you back on the road to financial health.

The economy plummets. You lose your job. Soon, you start to find it hard to make ends meet. You start putting things on your credit card. Then you fall behind in your card payments. All the while you’ve been desperately looking for a new job. Little do you know that being behind on credit card payments may stand between you and a job – the very thing that could get you back on the road to financial health.

If it sounds like a Catch-22, well, it is. Yet running a credit check on a potential employee is not only legal – it’s common practice, as a new survey and report from our friends at Demos found out. Demos spoke with nearly 1,000 low and middle-income households who carry credit card debt and found that one in four had a prospective employer run a credit check on them. One in ten had been told they wouldn’t be hired because of what the employer found there.

So what’s to be done? The report urges city and state governments to pass bans on using credit checks for hiring purposes, following in the footsteps of eight states that have done just that. Our government should also stop using this practice itself to set a good example. The report also urges regulators at the CFPB, FTC, and EEOC to crack down on credit reporting agencies and better protect consumers.

Read the full report here.

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Raising the Minimum Wage is a Step Toward Economic Freedom

Feb 20, 2013Annette Bernhardt

Opponents of a minimum wage increase imagine an economic reality very different from the one millions of American workers experience.

Opponents of a minimum wage increase imagine an economic reality very different from the one millions of American workers experience.

The good news from last week is that President Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage – long overdue and desperately needed for low-wage workers who have seen their real earnings decline during the recovery. The bad news is that his announcement set off a flurry of blogging on the economics of the minimum wage, and, predictably, not a small amount of armchair theorizing.

One particular contribution seems innocuous at first, but in fact frames the issue in an unhelpful and potentially misleading way. In his research round-up last Thursday, Matt Yglesias argued that the best case against raising the minimum wage might be economic freedom:

You've got a guy who wants to give someone $8 to do something that'll take an hour and another guy who wants $8 and is happy to do the thing in exchange for the money. Now Barack Obama's going to fine them for agreeing to trade $8 for the work? Seems perverse. In the real world, obviously, the perversity of this is greatly mitigated by the existence of formal exemptions and weak enforcement. If you pay a neighbor's son $10 to mow your lawn and it takes him 70 minutes, you're going to be able to get away with it even in a world of a $9 minimum wage. Which is probably as it should be.

In this theoretical world, the informal economy is a place where teenagers happily mow lawns and babysit for a little extra cash. But in the real America, we are talking about a large and growing sector of unregulated work, where every day, millions of adults work for subminimum wages and no overtime, often in unsafe and hazardous workplaces. Far from peripheral, this sector spans the core industries of our economy, from hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, retail sales workers, domestic workers, and home health aides to janitors, meat processing workers, taxi drivers, warehouse workers, and construction laborers.

And the violations of employment and labor laws are systemic. A landmark 2008 study of more than 4,000 low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles found that 26 percent had been paid less than the minimum wage in the preceding week, 76 percent had been underpaid for their overtime hours, and 70 percent did not receive any pay at all when they came in early or stayed late after their shift. Also important for this discussion: when workers made a complaint to their employer about wages or working conditions, 43 percent were retaliated against. Not surprisingly, many more never complained in the first place, out of fear that they’d be fired or turned over to the immigration authorities.

So this is not a world where workers are “happy to do the thing” for subminimum wages. It is not a world where workers and employers come to the wage negotiation with anything even vaguely resembling the equal power one would need to call it economic freedom. (And how low are we willing to go, by the way? Some have called for states to be allowed to experiment with $5 an hour minimum wages – but why stop there? What about $1 an hour? Or abolishing child labor laws, as a 2011 Missouri bill would have done?)

Moreover, this is not a world where weak enforcement of our laws is a good thing. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of federal wage and hour inspectors declined by 31 percent and the number of enforcement actions fell by 61 percent. By contrast, the civilian labor force grew 52 percent during this same period. And while the U.S. Department of Labor has added more investigators under the Obama administration, the current federal staffing level of 1,006 is still below its 1980 peak. (The picture looks even worse for enforcement of health and safety laws.)

In the same vein, there is nothing to cheer about when, for example, 2.5 million home care workers are exempted from minimum wage and overtime protections, which has driven down job quality, increased turnover, and caused staffing shortages in this critical industry.

So let me suggest a different definition of economic freedom. Under this definition, economic freedom means being able to earn a living wage, being able to pay for electricity and rent, being able to afford child care and health care, being able to save for college, and being able to put enough aside for retirement. In short, “freedom from want,” which not coincidentally comes to us from FDR, the father of the minimum wage.

Back then, the fight was to set a strong wage floor and enforce it, against arguments that businesses couldn’t compete without child labor and sweatshops. Now the fight is to set a strong wage floor and enforce it, against arguments that multinational corporations with billions a year in profits can’t afford to raise their wages to the poverty line. In both cases, the stakes remain the same: the strength of our families, our economy, and our respect for the labor of others.

Annette Bernhardt is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project.

 

Housekeeper image via Shutterstock.com.

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Won't Somebody Please (Not) Think of the Children? On the Benefits of Pre-K for Parents.

Feb 15, 2013Mike Konczal

I wrote a piece I was pretty happy with in The American Prospect called "The Great Society's Next Frontier." Given that health care had passed and wasn't going to be overturned, the question was what would be the next battles for the liberal project. Rather than showing the exhaustion of the liberal project, I found the recent State of the Union a nice checklist of things that have been done, as well as new areas to take the project next, with some markers for a longer-term agenda.

At the Prospect I noted that a mix of "predistribution" and redistribution to expand opportunities while boosting wages were going to be an important part, and two of the ideas that addressed those issues were present in President Obama's State of the Union address: a higher minimum wage and pre-K. Pre-K is going to be a big topic, and this Boston Review symposium by James Heckman is a great place to read what experts are saying.

There's a big debate starting about how good pre-K would be for the kids involved. Would it make them smarter, more capable adults, less likely to have pathological behaviors later in life and more likely to develop a rich range of capabilities and opportunities? There is also the conversation on what that will mean for the economy as a whole. Will an additional year of schooling make us an economically richer country? Will it be a better investment than the stock market?

But there's a very interested party missing from this conversation, and that is parents themselves, particularly mothers who are working or would like to be. As my colleague Bryce Covert notes, pre-K "would also be hugely important in helping parents of all incomes go to work and know that their children are in good hands."

I'm not sure what research has or has not been done on this topic, but here are some fascinating things. A 2011 report from UC Berkeley's Labor Center on the "Economic Impacts of Early Care and Education in California" highlighted some important points. Having access to a dedicated, high-quality preschool can reduce absenteeism and turnover for working parents. Child care arrangements often break down, usually on short notice, which causes work absences as well as other problems. Headaches over child care issues can reduce productivity.

This is a fascinating experiment, from the Labor Center report:

A study of public employees in New York City who were provided with child care subsidies found that the employees had a 17.8 percent decrease in disciplinary action compared to a control group that did not receive the subsidy. Overwhelmingly, those in the subsidy group reported leaving work less often, concentrating better at work, being more productive at work, and using fewer sick days to deal with child care issues.

Fathers can and do stay home with young children, but women are more likely to do this. And this will impact women's existence in the labor market. The OECD shows that the wage gap is significantly higher for women with children and notes that the United States' public investment in child care (ages 0-5) is 0.4 percent of GDP, compared the average OECD of 0.7 percent. Lack of child care access also impacts whether women start businesses and whether they have career arcs that take full advantage of their talents.
 
This strikes me as a politically volatile point to make, if only because few people make it. Why is that? Patrick Caldwell had a piece recently in The American Prospect about the Right's obsession with an Obama re-election campaign tool called "The Life of Julia." The online infographic showed how government structures and counterbalances the risks and opportunities we face over the course of our lives. The Right, correctly, understands this as a challenge to its vision of the primacy of the (patriarchal) family and the market as having complete dominion over those risks. Using the state to give parents, and especially women, more opportunities to inhabit other roles, either in the market or not, is going to run straight into the Right's worldview.
 
I noticed a bit of this on the Left as well, specifically the parts of the Left that are distrustful of public education. In the debate over "unschooling" (lefty homeschooling, usually as a critique of the conformity of public education), Dana Goldstein pointed out the class bias in this critique. She noted "more than 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are in the workforce. One-third of all children and one-half of low-income children are being raised by a single parent. Fewer than one-half of young children, and only about one-third of low-income kids, are read to daily by an adult. Surely, this isn’t the picture of a nation ready to 'self-educate' its kids." Having an additional year of school is a major boon for parents when you understand the stresses they face.
 
But again, I'm outside the policy topics I hang outside my wonk door. What's your take?
 
Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

 

I wrote a piece I was pretty happy with in The American Prospect called "The Great Society's Next Frontier." Given that health care had passed and wasn't going to be overturned, the question was what would be the next battles for the liberal project. Rather than showing the exhaustion of the liberal project, I found the recent State of the Union a nice checklist of things that have been done, as well as new areas to take the project next, with some markers for a longer-term agenda.

At the Prospect I noted that a mix of "predistribution" and redistribution to expand opportunities while boosting wages were going to be an important part, and two of the ideas that addressed those issues were present in President Obama's State of the Union address: a higher minimum wage and pre-K. Pre-K is going to be a big topic, and this Boston Review symposium by James Heckman is a great place to read what experts are saying.

There's a big debate starting about how good pre-K would be for the kids involved. Would it make them smarter, more capable adults, less likely to have pathological behaviors later in life and more likely to develop a rich range of capabilities and opportunities? There is also the conversation on what that will mean for the economy as a whole. Will an additional year of schooling make us an economically richer country? Will it be a better investment than the stock market?

But there's a very interested party missing from this conversation, and that is parents themselves, particularly mothers who are working or would like to be. As my colleague Bryce Covert notes, pre-K "would also be hugely important in helping parents of all incomes go to work and know that their children are in good hands."

I'm not sure what research has or has not been done on this topic, but here are some fascinating things. A 2011 report from UC Berkeley's Labor Center on the "Economic Impacts of Early Care and Education in California" highlighted some important points. Having access to a dedicated, high-quality preschool can reduce absenteeism and turnover for working parents. Child care arrangements often break down, usually on short notice, which causes work absences as well as other problems. Headaches over child care issues can reduce productivity.

This is a fascinating experiment, from the Labor Center report:

A study of public employees in New York City who were provided with child care subsidies found that the employees had a 17.8 percent decrease in disciplinary action compared to a control group that did not receive the subsidy. Overwhelmingly, those in the subsidy group reported leaving work less often, concentrating better at work, being more productive at work, and using fewer sick days to deal with child care issues.

Fathers can and do stay home with young children, but women are more likely to do this. And this will impact women's existence in the labor market. The OECD shows that the wage gap is significantly higher for women with children and notes that the United States' public investment in child care (ages 0-5) is 0.4 percent of GDP, compared the average OECD of 0.7 percent. Lack of child care access also impacts whether women start businesses and whether they have career arcs that take full advantage of their talents.
 
This strikes me as a politically volatile point to make, if only because few people make it. Why is that? Patrick Caldwell had a piece recently in The American Prospect about the Right's obsession with an Obama re-election campaign tool called "The Life of Julia." The online infographic showed how government structures and counterbalances the risks and opportunities we face over the course of our lives. The Right, correctly, understands this as a challenge to its vision of the primacy of the (patriarchal) family and the market as having complete dominion over those risks. Using the state to give parents, and especially women, more opportunities to inhabit other roles, either in the market or not, is going to run straight into the Right's worldview.
 
I noticed a bit of this on the Left as well, specifically the parts of the Left that are distrustful of public education. In the debate over "unschooling" (lefty homeschooling, usually as a critique of the conformity of public education), Dana Goldstein pointed out the class bias in this critique. She noted "more than 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are in the workforce. One-third of all children and one-half of low-income children are being raised by a single parent. Fewer than one-half of young children, and only about one-third of low-income kids, are read to daily by an adult. Surely, this isn’t the picture of a nation ready to 'self-educate' its kids." Having an additional year of school is a major boon for parents when you understand the stresses they face.
 
But again, I'm outside the policy topics I hang outside my wonk door. What's your take?
 
Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

 

Mother and child image via Shutterstock.com.

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