Links to Sources in Newsday Op-Ed

Newsday - 2018-08-10A few people asked me for the links that were meant to accompany my recent op-ed in Newsday about how today’s low unemployment rate is misleading. (Newsday apparently doesn’t include links in articles published in its print edition.) Here is the text below, with the links to sources included. The published article can be found here.

Beware of this misleading snapshot

Jobless rate, Wall Street not the best way to gauge true strength of U.S. economy.

By Victor Tan Chen

By the most commonly cited measures, the U.S. economy is doing great. The Dow fell during the first quarter of the year, but over the longer term it’s up considerably. Economic growth has kept steady. Most strikingly, the national unemployment rate, at about 4 percent, has been at lows not seen since 2000.

The problem is, these headline economic figures — which Republicans and Democrats regularly cite in taking credit for a booming economy, or criticizing a flagging one — have become less useful measures of how well the economy is doing for ordinary Americans. This is partly because of a dramatic increase in income inequality.

By the best estimates available (tax data), the country’s top tenth of earners take in about half of the country’s income — more than the same group did in the decade of opulence and inequality leading up to the Great Depression. In this tale of two Americas, it is the best of times for well-educated people in higher-income households, who have largely seen their assets accumulate and job opportunities abound. But things are not so good for Americans with less schooling and earnings. They face a much tougher economy, forcing some to settle for dead-end jobs and leading others to drop out of the labor market.

Growing inequality

This surging inequality means that looking at the well-being of the largest U.S. corporations or levels of unemployment nationally provides a misleading snapshot of how the economy is treating most Americans — who, it is important to remember, don’t own much, if any, stock, don’t have bachelor’s degrees, and don’t make more than $60,000 a year.

While many more people are working than during and right after the last recession, there has also been a sharp rise in the number of people who are out of the labor force — that is, not working, but not looking for work. These folks are not counted in the unemployment rate because the government defines the unemployed as people who have searched for work in the last four weeks. If unemployed people stop job searching, the government considers them to have left the labor force, and its measure of unemployment goes down. In other words, today’s unemployment rate is so low not just because more Americans are back to work, but also because some people have stopped looking for work.

Some of them are in school. Others are retired. But a large and growing number of American between the ages of 25 and 54 — old enough to be done with college, but not old enough to retire at the conventional age — have joined this jobless group, too. The vast majority of them are men, and the vast majority do not have college degrees.

There are various reasons why these prime-age adults have fallen out of the labor force, but the two chief culprits, according to an analysis of recent research, are competition from Chinese manufacturing and the use of industrial robots. These two trends eliminated millions of manufacturing jobs and did not replace them with well-paid work that those with less education could fall back on. Fruitless job searches have led many of them to give up actively looking for work.

At the same time, there has been a rapid spread of what social scientists call “precarious” work — jobs as temp workers, contractors, and on-call workers that are unpredictable and offer few protections to workers. A recent study found that all the net employment growth over the past decade is from jobs in this category. Combine this trend with the expansion of low-wage jobs in retail, restaurants, and the larger service sector, and it becomes clearer why many people out of work because of globalization and automation can no longer find decent employment to replace what they lost — and why some have given up in despair.

Worrisome trends

Overall, these trends have created a growing division of non-labor — from “underemployed” to “unemployed” to “not in the labor force” — that weakens the bargaining position of those who do have jobs. That speaks to another trend obscured by the headline figures: the fact that American workers have not seen much in the way of wage growth in this supposedly booming economy. Over the past year, wages have gone up more or less at the same pace as inflation — even as large corporations have seen their stock valuations soar.

Because ordinary workers have so little power in today’s workplace, they have enjoyed a dwindling share of the economy’s expanding pie. Worker productivity and wages — which during the heyday of America’s labor movement, rose in lockstep — have become uncoupled.

This disconnect also means that the recent Republican tax reform legislation, which slashed corporate taxes, will likely not pay off for the average employee. Without worker power to wring concessions from management, companies are more likely to plow their extra cash into rewarding investors with stock buybacks and dividends rather than raising wages. (So far, there is evidence they’re doing just that.)

For decades, presidential administrations have more or less argued that what’s good for General Motors is good for America. In this view, policies that help large corporations flourish will ultimately lead not just to greater wealth for stockholders, but also higher wages for workers, better products and services for consumers, and heftier tax revenues for government agencies.

But the extreme widening of income inequality has changed that feel-good economic story. Today, what’s good for GM is not necessarily good for America — and what’s good for GDP is not necessarily good for ordinary Americans.

Victor Tan Chen, a former Newsday reporter, is a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of “Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy” and the editor-in-chief of In The Fray, an online magazine.

 

Appearances in Dissent and the Atlantic

I have a new piece, “Adulting While Poor,” in the fall issue of Dissent magazine. In it, I argue that the reason that many millennials can’t reach the traditional milestones of adulthood—such as getting a house and a full-time job—have little to do with a lack of willpower, and a lot to do with class:

To take just one example: As avidly as the media talks about how college grads nowadays are boomeranging back to mooch off mom and dad, the fact is that this trend is largely driven by those who didn’t go to college—working-class millennials. (Here I define class by income and education, with the “working class” making less than the median household and not possessing a four-year degree.) Young Americans with a bachelor’s degree are half as likely to live with their parents as those with just a high school degree. In fact, they live with a spouse or other partner at about the same rate as their counterparts did in that dissolute decade, the 1940s.

My article is part of a special print issue on housing featuring essays by a number of writers, including Thomas Sugrue, Matthew Desmond, and Rachel M. Cohen.

Also, Joe Pinsker of the Atlantic discussed my work in his recent article, “The Not-So-Great Reason Divorce Rates Are Declining“:

As the sociologist Victor Chen wrote for The Atlantic last year, those without college degrees were a few decades ago significantly likelier to be married by age 30 than were those with college degrees. Now, Chen notes, “just over half of women in their early 40s with a high-school degree or less education are married, compared to three-quarters of women with a bachelor’s degree.”

Chen connects this trend to the decline of well-paying jobs for those without college degrees, which, he argues, makes it harder to form more stable relationships. Indeed, Cohen writes in his paper that marriage is “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” The state of it today is both a reflection of the opportunities unlocked by a college degree and a force that, by allowing couples to pool their incomes, itself widens economic gaps.

 

Newsday Op-Ed and Other Updates

I’ve been remiss about updating the blog, but here’s a roundup of some stuff I’ve been doing:

Here’s the video of my Institute for Research on Poverty webinar:

Two Recent Articles in The Atlantic

I’ve been behind in updating the blog, but I wanted to mention two articles I wrote recently for The Atlantic‘s website.

America, Home of the Transactional Marriage” looks at the ways that marriages fray after a job loss—which, in today’s tough economy, hurts working-class people particularly hard:

Why are those with less education—the working class—entering into, and staying in, traditional family arrangements in smaller and smaller numbers?… What’s at the core of those changes is a larger shift: The disappearance of good jobs for people with less education has made it harder for them to start, and sustain, relationships. What’s more, the U.S.’s relatively meager safety net makes the cost of being unemployed even steeper than it is in other industrialized countries—which prompts many Americans to view the decision to stay married with a jobless partner in more transactional, economic terms. And this isn’t only because of the financial ramifications of losing a job, but, in a country that puts such a premium on individual achievement, the emotional and psychological consequences as well. Even when it comes to private matters of love and lifestyle, the broader social structure—the state of the economy, the availability of good jobs, and so on—matters a great deal.

Last month’s “Are Campus Activists Too Dogmatic?” was my take on campus politics and the counterproductive focus on sin:

At the core of the issue is a troubling tendency, on both the left and right, that goes well beyond college campuses: a consuming obsession with sin. Given the right’s religious base, it’s not all that surprising that conservatives focus on moral transgressions—whether they violate God’s divine law, America’s founding ideals of liberty, ’50s-style norms of sexual behavior and good housekeeping, or other codes of conduct. But the left can be prudish and judgmental about the evils it holds in special contempt, too. On college campuses in particular, activists often take an almost religious approach to politics, rooted in a belief—sometimes stated, sometimes implied—in the irredeemable sin of America and its mainstream. Their work on vital issues gets diverted from real-world objectives and takes on the character of a church revival, with rituals to express its believers’ sin and salvation, and a fundamentalist attention to language and doctrine.

By the way, on Monday I’ll be doing a live, on-air interview on KERA, the NPR station in Dallas.  I’ll be on THINK, the station’s daily talk show, talking about my piece for The Atlantic about transactional marriages. The interview will be from 1-2 p.m. ET (12-1 p.m. CT), and it looks like you can listen to it online at keranews.org. Thanks for all your support!

Posts, Podcasts, and Presentations (plus, a Prize)

I’ve been remiss about mentioning some recent developments. Perhaps the biggest news is that I received the 2017 Dunlop Outstanding Scholar Award from the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA). The Dunlop award—named after the former Secretary of Labor and past president of LERA, John T. Dunlop—”recognizes the best contribution to research that addresses an industrial relations/employment problem of national significance.” (VCU later featured me in a Q&A and a news release about the award.)

I’m going to shove all my other news into the rest of this post, using that friend of professors everywhere, the bullet-point list:

  • Last month I was invited to speak at a conference hosted by the US Department of Health and Human Services in Washington. My lecture slides for the conference, Deep Poverty in the United States (sponsored by the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Urban Institute), can be found here.
  • I was interviewed by CUNY’s Richard Ocejo for the podcast New Books Network (NBn). We discussed my book Cut Loose and had a wide-ranging conversation about inequality, technology, and the economy. (Rich just came out with a great new book, Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, which was featured on NPR’s Marketplace.)
  • I wrote a post for the blog Working-Class Perspectives on MIT economist Peter Temin’s new book The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy. (No relation to my previous book, The Missing Class.) I discuss Temin’s theory that changes in the economy and political system have created two Americas: a well-educated and well-connected minority, and a majority falling into stagnation and despair.
  • I was invited to write a short essay for Contexts, the American Sociological Association’s magazine, as part of a panel of scholars writing about the white working class and its politics, including its role in the 2016 presidential election.
  • I was quoted for stories about food stamps that ran on the NPR affiliate and ABC affiliate here in Richmond.
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New Essay (from Old Talk)

If you had better things to do and somehow missed my book talk at Boston College, now you can read (for free!) an essay adapted from it in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Religions. Here is the link. Or get the PDF here. (Note: To my knowledge, the essay has nothing to do with the Grim Reaper on the journal’s cover.)

Victor-Chen-Elizabeth-Warren-Growing-ApartI gave the talk as one of three plenary speakers for Growing Apart: The Implications of Economic Inequality, an interdisciplinary conference sponsored by Boston College’s Jesuit Institute last year. The other plenary speakers were Senator Elizabeth Warren and Dr. Shaji George Kochuthara of Dharmaran College in Bangalore, India. Senator Warren opened for me. (Not really. But technically speaking, she did go before me. On another stage. On another day.) In the talk, I discuss my concept of the “morality of grace,” among other things.

In unrelated news, for a long while now I’ve been meaning to post the audio of a radio interview I did on the Matt Townsend Show. At last, here it is. In our conversation, I talk about my Atlantic article “The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy.”

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New Essay on Trump’s American Dream

Worker on city street

Here is an essay I wrote about what I think the Trump administration is likely to do for/to the working class. (It was originally published on the University of California Press’s blog and republished on In The Fray.) An excerpt:

In his pronouncements from the bully pulpit, [Trump] has made it clear that he is about America “winning”—as he personally, through his attainment of extravagant wealth and fame, believes he has done. But the pursuit of a Trumpian American dream of materialism and self-interest will take us even farther from the civic-minded ideals of the early republic. As rising inequality stamps out opportunities for rags-to-riches stories of success, and the Trump administration’s promises to working people prove to be worthless, that narrow dream of national greatness may, in fact, take on another, darker meaning: as George Carlin put it, “It’s called the American dream ’cause you have to be asleep to believe it.”

You can read the entire essay here.