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Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?

David Moberg

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People don’t just want a job. They want a good job. And over the past three decades the American economy has increasingly failed to deliver enough good jobs.

What is a good job? According Algernon Austin, an Economic Policy Institute economist and author of the brand-new report Getting Good Jobs to America’s People of Color,” a good job provides an above-poverty wage, health insurance and adequate retirement income.

Consistent with proposed new U.S. poverty standards and international comparative standards, Austin sets the good job” wage at 60 percent of the median household income — about $14.50 an hour, or $30,000 a year.

By Austin’s definition, only 27.6 percent of Americans had good jobs in 2008. In 1979, the share of good jobs was about 35 percent. Who lost good jobs during the 30 years in between, generally speaking? Latino men, followed by white men, according to Austin. The only group gaining was white women.

That decline in good jobs occurred over a time when productivity rose 76 percent. How can this be? Simple: the very rich captured most income growth, and inequality grew.

Yet even with the shifts, whites were more likely to have good jobs — 31.5 percent of whites, compared with 14.4 percent of Latinos and 21.8 percent of African-Americans. Adjusting for education, whites still had an advantage, but a bit less so between blacks and whites with college or higher education.

America’s creation of good jobs falls short, especially by international standards, because this country does not have universal health coverage and because Social Security does not match social pension programs in most rich countries. Looking at wages alone, only 56.1 percent of workers earned enough pay for a minimally good job.”

Austin argues that public policy should aim to guarantee that 75 percent of jobs are good by raising and indexing the minimum wage to half the national average wage and increasing unionization, which would be especially helpful for workers of color.

But he also argues for policies that address the racial gaps, such as better enforcement of laws against discrimination, better training and education, and specific help for immigrants and ex-prisoners.

If there’s any problem with Austin work here, it’s that his definition of a good job” is ultimately too narrow, leaving out the need for meaningful work that uses workers’ talents and enhances their skills, as well as the need for both more leisure time and more democratic control of the workplace. 

But at a time when many people are worried about whether there are enough jobs, it’s important to raise our sights to good jobs for everyone. Not all jobs are created equal.

The Economic Policy Institute will host a panel event featuring Algernon Austin on Thursday, November 12, between 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Full details are here.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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