Work isn’t working for a lot of America

newspaper that reads "jobs" with a magnifying class on top of it
By Tanzina Vega

Like many other Gen Xers, I had my first job at 14 years old when I got a permit to be legally employed. I earned about $3.35 an hour and the job itself was nontraditional — I was a proofreader at the global investment bank Lazard in midtown Manhattan. As a Puerto Rican girl growing up in public housing in New York, I was convinced that the job would serve as a path to a better future. In the late 1980s the idea of accessing the American middle class if you worked hard was very much alive.

So when I look at this year’s “hot labor summer” and reflect back on my 38 years in the workplace, it would be naive for me to say that the social contract between workers and employers is broken. If anything, it needs to be totally rewritten, beginning with what workers get in exchange for their labor. While I was thrilled to earn $3.35 an hour as a teenager, since I was working class, that money went toward clothes for my corporate job and paying corporate lunch prices. In short, I didn’t get to save much. What came in went out so that I could keep, well, working.

 

This is the situation that many Americans find themselves in today. People are working (unemployment is hovering at 3.5 percent), but their pay has only increased 4.6 percent since last year. According to research from CNBC, more than half of Americans surveyed say they live paycheck to paycheck, and more than 70 percent say they are stressed over their finances. Across the country, from Hollywood to Starbucks to UPS, workers are demanding better pay and better overall working conditions. A 2023 Pew survey showed that just 34 percent of workers said they were satisfied with what they are paid. Surprisingly, the same study showed that about two out of three workers were satisfied with their relationships with their coworkers more than anything else in their jobs. Yay?

Imagine going a step further and having some kind of universal basic income that would help Americans who lose their jobs not become destitute. Could that lead to greater bargaining power for workers? It’s not so simple. I spoke to William “Sandy” Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University, about the issue, and he advocates for a federal job guarantee rather than a UBI model. Darity said UBI could actually lessen worker bargaining power by potentially giving “employers greater leverage for reducing wages, since everyone would receive an assured income.” Darity and his colleagues say that a federal job guarantee that provides workers with a salary floor of at least $23,000 could help eliminate the working poor.