Race, Class, Jobs and the 2016 Earthquake

You could blame the rage of many Trump supporters on a backlash against a black president and against fear of immigrants. But that lets purely economic factors off the hook too easily. Today, the economy is on the mend, but that average progress isn't improving the life horizons of most people.
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If you are old enough, you may recall the "dueling banjos" riff from the 1972 movie, Deliverance.

The debate about who is getting the worst shafting from the economy -- black Americans or downwardly mobile, white working class Americans -- reminds me of dueling banjos.

We have it worse: dinga-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. No, we have it worse: dinga-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. And if you remember Deliverance, you will also remember that it didn't end well.

Half a century after the civil rights movement, African Americans can rightly point out that in many respects things for blacks are worse than ever. After the sub-prime wipeout, often deliberately targeted at blacks, median black wealth is now just 8 percent of median white wealth.

Ferguson belatedly called the attention of white America to realities that blacks knew all too well -- young black men are likely to have warrants out for their arrest for very minor violations that tend to cascade, creating a whole generation of outlaws. Cops kill black kids with impunity. Mass incarceration has disproportionately afflicted blacks. As the recent book, Evicted, by Matthew Desmond documents, affordable housing is vanishing and evictions are a plague in black neighborhoods. School segregation is getting worse, not better. Voting rights are once again being denied, with the complicity of courts. And a great deal more. Case proven.

And yet, as the support for Trump and Sanders among the white working class suggests, this has not been a rosy time for lower income whites either. Life expectancies for non-affluent white men have been falling, as an epidemic of drugs and suicides has been increasing. Blue-collar jobs that used to provide a decent living for working class men have been vanishing. Whites whose fathers and grandfathers had good factory jobs are fast food workers, Walmart clerks or prison guards -- and worse.

Both trends are real. If one had to choose, the deprivation among African Americans is more dire. But real suffering is there, among both groups.

You could blame the rage of many Trump supporters on a backlash against a black president and against fear of immigrants. But that lets purely economic factors off the hook too easily.

The reality that tens of millions of American workers -- black and white -- are stuck in substandard jobs has finally broken through into mainstream political and economic discourse. The fact was obvious if you just went out and spoke to ordinary Americans, but it wasn't showing up in the usual economic data.

The so called gig economy -- companies like Uber and Task Rabbit and Mechanical Turk -- were the subject of lots of press accounts; but if you ran the numbers, people working in such jobs were well under a million, some of them working part time to supplement regular payroll jobs.

So these trends seemed to be showing up everywhere but in the official statistics.

The story was also confusing, because what economists call "non-standard employment" includes several imprecisely defined and overlapping categories: part-time work, temp work, contract work, and "on demand work" such as Uber and more traditional categories of day labor.

Out-of-date statistics from the Labor Department, based on notoriously inaccurate self-reporting, suggested that the proportion of people in such jobs was stable. But that turns out to be wrong.

A new research paper by two eminently mainstream economists, Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger, finally confirmed what has been clear to anyone who goes out to look for a job: Virtually all of the net jobs created in the past decade are "non-standard" -- temp, part-time, contract work, or something other than a traditional job with a normal paycheck.

To be precise, Katz and Krueger found that the number of Americans working in non-standard jobs increased by 9.4 million between 2005 and 2015 -- or more than the total number of jobs created during that period.

At a recent conference on substandard work sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, other researchers made clear that even the work of Katz and Krueger may well understate what's been occurring. In principle, a key distinction is between payroll jobs and casual jobs. But in fact, a lot of people who collect paychecks are working for labor contractors -- and face much the same deterioration in job quality and job stability as temps and on-demand workers.

Looking at the history of employment stability, the period that we thought of as normal -- the years between the New Deal and the 1970s -- was exceptional. Before the New Deal, job security was unreliable. A great many workers were casual, as increasing numbers are today.

But in the 1930s and 1940s, work got regularized -- not because of changes in technology but because of changes in power. Strong unions and government regulation blocked entire categories of exploitation. With weaker unions and weakened regulation, employers are once again taking advantage, and doing whatever they can get away with.

This is the year that the mass degradation of the terms of work finally got acknowledged by the experts, and belatedly became politicized. Yet the political fallout is up for grabs -- between Sanders on the left, Trump on the right, and Hillary Clinton in the center, who is frantically endeavoring to catch up with public opinion and worker frustration -- and serve as a credible spokesperson for something better.

In the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton's adviser James Carville famously put up a sign that read, "It's the economy, stupid." Today, the economy is on the mend, but that average progress isn't improving the life horizons of most people. The right sign for today's campaign is: It's the job market, stupid.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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