WASHINGTON - So many policy proposals aimed at reducing economic inequality emphasize moving disadvantaged people into higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs, typically with more access to education and training.
We do need to invest far more in expanding opportunity for fellow citizens who have lost all hope for advancement, but there is a flaw in this thinking, as Steven Dawson argues in “Make Bad Jobs Better,” a compendium of his recent work published earlier this year by the Pinkerton Foundation. If we define success “solely as securing a middle-class job,” he writes, “then we will limit ourselves to helping only a narrow segment of low-income workers improve their lives.”
Dawson focuses on the tens of millions of Americans who do very necessary work in our society and receive little reward for their efforts. He challenges the idea that “bad jobs” are destined to be bad forever, and that little can be done to enhance them.
Consider that we mourn the decline of auto, steel and other manufacturing jobs that were seen in the past as at least as “bad” as the retail and service occupations of the new American working class. It took unions working to raise pay and benefits and social legislation limiting hours and protecting worker safety to make old economy blue-collar jobs “good.”
The lesson is that what constitutes good work is a matter of social and political decision-making - and choices by employers to see their workers as assets and not merely as costs.
Dawson is a pioneer in doing what he recommends. At the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, he helped create employee-owned cooperatives of home health care workers, thereby converting what were once poorly paid jobs into pathways to independence, entrepreneurship and respect.
Dawson is scathing about the way our employment markets treat large numbers of very hard-working people. “A bad job is not simply the absence of a good job,” he writes.
“A bad job destabilizes the individual, her family and the community. A bad job not only fails to pay enough for decent food and shelter for a worker’s family, it can risk her health, disrupt any chance for a predictable family life, undermine her dignity, and deny her voice within the workplace.”
He notes that “the occupations that employ the largest numbers of low-income youth and adult workers ... experienced higher than average real wage declines in the years after the Great Recession. The pay drops were especially large for workers in retail, personal care and food preparation.
For many who find themselves at the bottom of the economy, the bane of their lives is instability: wage theft, part-time work, seasonal work, variable hours, and unpredictable schedules - the problem of “not knowing when you will be called to show up to your next part-time shift.” Low-wage jobs are also among the least safe.
Public policy has a role to play in making jobs better, starting with higher minimum wages, income supplements such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, universal family leave and health coverage for everyone. We should be building on the Affordable Care Act, not gutting it.
And many low-income jobs are supported indirectly by government money (Medicaid especially), so public programs should be consciously geared not just to providing essential services but also to offering platforms for the improvement of work life itself, for enriched training, and for more worker voice. These can, in turn, raise the standard of the services.
Dawson looks as well to private-sector employers as part of the solution. Especially when labor markets are tight, employers have an interest in satisfied, engaged and well-trained workers who welcome responsibility. This is one reason why the Federal Reserve should be wary of steps that would increase unemployment.
In another useful paper, “Restore the Promise of Work,” Dawson joins the Aspen Institute’s Maureen Conway to call for lifting up “high-road employers” who “offer concrete examples of how good jobs can be beneficial to all.” Tax policy can encourage high-road practices, and Conway and Dawson note that when governments contract for private-sector services, job quality should be part of the negotiations.
We should not allow the melodramas of the Trump presidency to overshadow the problems we need to solve or distract us from the reforms and innovations that could change the lives of a great many struggling people.
Dawson writes that “fear and insecurity will remain, and deepen, unless having a job once again means securing stability, dignity and self-worth for ourselves and our families.” When it comes to job quality, we need to get to work.
E.J. Dionne is a syndicated columnist.