Yesterday I visited one of my favorite blogs. It had been a few weeks, so I scrolled down to see that Barbara had been featured on POV where she'd been interviewed about one of POV's most recent shows, Waging a Living. It was beyond depressing. It forced me to look at the intersection between personal responsibility and society's responsibility. Not that this isn't something I often consider, but lately I've been focused on what we can do as individuals in our career life and this show brought me smack up against some realities of the workplace in which we're operating.
Here's what Roger Weisberg, maker of Waging a Living, says in an open letter to viewers:
Like many of my peers, I grew up believing in the American work ethic — the belief that hard work will invariably lead to economic success. Yet the hard-working low-wage earners we met while making "Waging a Living" felt trapped in poverty by dead-end jobs. Some worried that their earnings were failing to keep up with their bills, while others despaired that they were unable to provide their families with the same standard of living that they enjoyed growing up. They all believed in the American dream but discovered that the ladder out of poverty was steeper than they imagined. .
The percentage of workers trapped in poverty rose 50 percent between 1979 and 2000, and today 30 million Americans — one out of four workers — earn less than the federal poverty level for a family of four. Even more unsettling, most economists believe that families need to earn about twice the federal poverty level to be self-sufficient. One of the most disturbing trends is the rapid growth of income inequality. Between 1979 and 2000, incomes for the top 20 percent of wage earners rose 33 percent while incomes for the bottom 20 percent fell 9 percent. It is a sad irony that a growing number of full-time workers are unable to provide the basics for a decent life in a society that supposedly values and rewards hard work.
Over the past 10 years, I've done a lot of consulting work with federal, state and local governments who serve welfare clients, laid off workers, etc. Most welfare programs sell the story to clients that if they just find a job (usually at minimum wage), that will be their ticket out of poverty. This story makes it clear that that isn't the case. In fact, the wages that the people in this story earn are "dream" wages for many welfare clients and even for some of the dislocated workers who are "blue collar" and lower skilled. Yet they still can't make it.
The reasons for this are complicated. Some of them have to do with individual choices, lack of skills, etc. But when even those who are college-educated find themselves slipping out of the middle class and into a life of economic volatility, there's something else going on that we need to pay attention to. Says Barbara:
That was the promise of a college education: you get your degree, work hard, get some kind of a white collar job, eventually you might get promoted, and retire with a pension. We all know that's not true anymore. People bounce around. Elaine Chao, our Secretary of Labor, recently confessed that you could expect nine jobs in the course of your career after college — if you went to college, that is.
What's happening is what some economists call income volatility in the middle class, which means people getting battered by layoffs, outsourcing, downsizing. People could be making $100,000 a year and living in a big house on the block, but one day they're suddenly gone, they're not there anymore, because they got laid off, they went through their savings — and even upper-middle class people don't have much savings anymore — and they can very easily end up in exactly the kind of situation as the people profiled in Roger's movie, "Waging a Living." That is, they could be working for $8 or $10 an hour at Circuit City or Wal-Mart or somewhere like that.
What an incredible waste of human potential we have going on here. People who are willing to work hard and play the game, but who don't have the resources to become more highly skilled and,therefore, are trapped in a series of low wage, marginal jobs. And people who DO have the skills, but who can't find work that lets them use those talents. This creates for us a vastly larger underclass, a growing core of underutilized talents and people who will soon lack the financial resources to purchase the goods and services made by the companies that have laid them off.
I feel like I'm dancing around something really huge here--there are so many aspects of this situation to explore and I'm all over the place in thinking about them. This is a story about where personal responsiblity ends and social responsiblity begins and what happens in those spaces in between. It's about how we've gone from a nation that 50 years ago saw investing in its citizens through things like the GI Bill as a critical part of public policy, to a nation that see its workers primarily as an expense. It's a story about inequality, injustice and frustration. It's a cautionary tale about our future and I wish I knew where to go from here.