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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hamster-Wheel Economics 101

Given the bleak outlook, it's a relief to see growing momentum for raising the minimum wage to livable levels.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew comes across as somewhat optimistic about the rather lackluster national economy.

“Evidence continues to mount that our economy is gaining traction,” Lew recently said

“Nevertheless, we cannot escape the fact that millions of Americans continue to struggle and their pain reminds us that our work is not finished…For too many families this hardly feels like a recovery.”

At least he’s being honest.

Yes, the unemployment rate is creeping downward. It declined to 6.3 percent in April, down from its Great Recession peak of 10 percent in October 2009.

But median household income, adjusted for inflation, is parked at $51,000 a year. That’s more than $4,000 below where it stood when the recession began in 2007 and has actually declined a bit since 1989.

It’s hard to see what might appear to be progress as anything other than a good news-bad news situation. Joblessness is down because new jobs are being created, but lots of new jobs are crummy. They don’t pay enough to support a small family.

And unemployment declined in part because so many of the formerly employed have given up looking and settled for part-time and otherwise sub-par gigs that don’t make the full use of their potential. Many of these folks are no longer in the workforce at all.

Families that got by well enough on two meager incomes have now settled for living poorly on one. Many stay-at-home moms and dads alike say circumstances, rather than choice, dictated their current lifestyle.

We live in a hamster-wheel economy: No matter how fast it spins or how hard workers toil, it’s not moving ahead. What’s the best way out of the economic malaise that results from chronic under-employment, persistent joblessness, and household income levels that date back before many American workers were even born?

Well, we could try what the French do: work less.

The French way of work includes a shorter week with fewer hours and long vacations. In other words they address the shortage of jobs by spreading the work around. People earn a more-or-less living wage for doing less than their American counterparts. It sounds awfully nice but it’s no cure-all. 

French unemployment is pretty high and wages are stagnating there too.

Still, the Affordable Care Act is giving more Americans the opportunity to be more like the French by working less and even opting out of the workforce altogether. The landmark health care law lets some overburdened citizens give up their day jobs. That’s bringing relief to many caregivers with seriously ill loved ones who previously struggled to keep working simply to hang onto their health insurance. Time matters more than money to these folks right now.

Given the federal government’s failure to bring on an authentic economic recovery, the growing momentum in states and cities for raising the minimum wage to livable levels is injecting some light into the end of the tunnel. Seattle just raised its base pay to $15 an hour. 

Connecticut made history a few months ago by becoming the first state to establish a $10.10 hourly minimum wage. D.C.’s leaders, who approved a gradual increase that will hit $11.50 an hour by 2016, are now under pressure to aim higher than that.

What could the federal government do, aside from raising the minimum wage for everyone? One option would be to study how our country recovered from the Great Depression: undertaking big projects. Everybody got a dam, or at least a high school, or a mural. The government’s industrial mobilization during WWII brought unemployment down to negligible levels.

Of course the federal government isn’t on the verge of doing anything that bold. And with a tea party unknown triggering House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s unexpected exit, Congress may move from gridlock to frozen in place.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies @ESGrecoOtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.