I wish I could make everyone who has anything to do with making policy read the Michigan League for Human Services’ Labor Day report.
In a mere dozen pages, this report makes it clear that our problem is not the fact that our workers are lazy or even that unemployment is too high. The jobless rate is, in fact, lower than it was in the 1980s.
Most people have jobs. The problem is that the jobs don’t pay enough to live on. I don’t mean enough to live like a king on, I mean enough to pay your basic bills and eat a balanced diet.
These are people who work full-time, often at hard, exhausting jobs, and still can’t make ends meet. Two years ago, almost one-quarter of all Michigan workers were employed in jobs paying less than the poverty wage level, assuming they have to support a family of four.
Everything I know suggests that number has increased, given the fact that auto manufacturing jobs continue to decline and more and more people are forced into service and retail jobs. The Michigan League for Human Services is a private, non-profit agency that studies policies that are apt to affect our neediest citizens.
It took a look at the six job classifications that employ the most workers in Michigan, and discovered that four of them pay a median hourly wage below that poverty line.
True, some of those workers make more. Some of them are not heads of household; some may be young people living with parents.
Some have income from a spouse. But all too many of them – hundreds of thousands of them -- are trying to make it on low-wage jobs, such as cashiers and restaurant servers.
Nearly ten years ago, author Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an incredibly important book about the life of the working poor: Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America. She researched this book by spending months as a low-wage worker in a variety of jobs.
She learned that it is really impossible to make a living on such work. And she concludes that those doing the poorest paid jobs are actually providing a form of welfare to the rest of us: “The working poor are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their children so the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else.”
You might ask yourself this Labor Day if that is the kind of Michigan you want. And I would hope that every legislator thinks about that, when it comes time to vote on education and training programs that might give these folks a chance of climbing out of the hole.