Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

Elephant In The Room: Low Value Of Work

January 15, 2006
Commentary By Dan Haar

Toward the end of a high-minded forum on the working poor at the state Capitol, Hartford neighborhood organizer Luz Santana screamed out that she had something to say.

She had had enough. Enough of the crisis she sees every day on the streets. Enough of the polite, academic, policy-wonk tone of Wednesday's gathering.

"We can talk about poverty until we drop dead. But the issue is not going to go away," Santana said, her tone a cross between stern teacher and bulldog guarding a gateway. "Tax the rich. Organize our people.

"Everyone is all concerned about saving their salaries while the people they're serving are struggling and struggling."

Back to the rich: "They cannot keep getting richer and richer, and we get poorer and poorer. We cannot afford it. ...There is no money out there for people to take care of their loved ones."

Class warfare, certainly it was. But Santana's outburst - coming amid two mornings of discussions sponsored by advocacy groups about how and why the state should help struggling people get ahead - reflected something deeper. It revealed a harsh truth about the hot debate over social policy reform.

Quite simply, the U.S. economy has devalued the work performed by people below the middle-income level by lowering the pay of so many jobs.

The talk and the controversy center on social policy, but stagnant basic pay, combined with shrinking health benefits, is responsible for more misery than the failure of government reforms.

As the left and right argue about how to spend taxpayer money - notably in the form of the state's $525 million budget surplus - devaluation of work is an elephant lounging in the room.

The elephant takes several forms. For millions of families clinging to what used to be called the working class, ups and downs are no longer tied to a business cycle. Even in good times - such as the last 2½ years, by standard measures of the economy - they cannot reasonably expect to get ahead.

Among its footprints: the rising ranks of Connecticut's 400,000 residents without health coverage; the frustrations of workers in old-line, non-unionized factories, whose benefits remain intact, but whose pay has languished; the fruitless careers of former welfare mothers stuck in low-paying store clerk jobs.

The elephant is also clear in the big-picture numbers: Even amid low unemployment, when many businesses say they can't find enough good workers, the $551 average weekly pay of non-management workers is losing ground to inflation.

Not all work is devalued, mind you. Average CEO pay at the biggest public companies reached $11.8 million in 2004, up from $1.2 million in 1985, according to United for a Fair Economy, a Massachusetts group. And just last week, the New York State comptroller gleefully declared that Wall Street's annual winter bonuses will reach a record $21.5 billion this year.

In the face of all this, the usual government remedies - more spending on early childhood care, adult education, tax credits for low-income workers, publicly financed or even mandated health coverage, tiny advances in worker-organizing rights - seem like a spoon in the Sahara, even added together. Still, the old debate continues.

To a woman (mostly women), advocates for the working poor say the devaluation does nothing to discourage them; quite the opposite, in fact, as was clear Wednesday at the Connecticut Association for Human Services forum.

"When one assumes a posture of feeling powerless, that absolutely is immobilizing," said the Rev. Bonita Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action in New Haven. "There are too many children at stake."

Too many children.

So what is to be done?

Advocates will work on public-sector answers with more urgency, and with an ever greater eye toward making economic logic, not just the old moral arguments. Using economic language to call for expanded state and federal programs for the poor is the first step toward a broader understanding that merely increasing the size of the economy - the main goal of national policy in recent years - is not enough.

"Today we need an Economic Security Act for America's hard-working families," said Jacob Hacker, a Yale political science professor and author of "The Great Risk Shift: Increasing Burdens on Families."

The free market, whatever that may be, is not entirely what got us into this mess. It's true that there is more competition for work from eager folks in China and India, but the fact is that the U.S. economy is generating ever more wealth - it's just not trickling down. Somewhere in a generation of rhetoric, self-styled free-market disciples have used a bully pulpit to extol the virtues of individual advancement at the expense of community, and vast categories of work lost value while others zoomed ahead.

That's not entirely supply-and-demand, unless you believe that a typical CEO would walk off the job if given, say, a mere $7 million a year for his toils instead of $12 million.

The answer, if there is one, lies somewhere between the public and private realms, in a societal effort to restore the inherent value of work, across the board.

Utopian? Maybe. But it's a big elephant in that room.

Shelley Geballe, president of Connecticut Voices for Children, which organized Thursday's forum, is hardly ready to concede that the fight over public spending is less than crucial.

Acknowledging the loss of pay as a driving force, she noted, "We devalue, in many respects, jobs taking care of people.

"I think it's a piece of the elephant, for sure," Geballe added. "I'll give you two legs."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?