Jobs For All And Wages For A Decent Life


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    9-20

ABSTRACT:  Joblessness and homelessness as problems can be ameliorated by ensuring that everyone in society who can work has something useful to do—for most people, a “job.”  Coupled with this, wealth inequality in our society can be ameliorated through ensuring that every worker earns enough for at least a “decent” life.

KEY WORDS:  jobs, employment, capitalism, a living wage, globalization, welfare, homelessness, unemployment

Capitalism, together with our country’s marvelous natural resources, has produced an economy that is unparalleled in product variety and availability, but as a system it has needed tinkering from time to time, including banking regulation and minimum wages.  As we have moved toward a more global economy, three additional problems are becoming evident—that more people are being left out of the work force, that it is more difficult for many workers to find new jobs after being laid off, and that wealth inequality has grown to become a moral issue for some citizens.

As our economy has moved away from manufacturing and toward services, and because of outsourcing (data processing, human resources, research, food service, etc.) and moving jobs overseas to find workers willing to work for less, employment has become less secure for Americans, and more people are having to find new and different jobs.  As methods of manufacturing and providing services become more refined (including automation) many jobs have become more specialized and now require more background training and/or experience, which makes it harder for displaced workers to find good paying re-employment if their type of job has become extinct.  Also, many people cannot afford to or are reluctant to move to other cities or states (or countries) to find that re-employment and end up subsisting somehow where they had already built their lives.

Specialization, automation, outsourcing, globalization, and other efficiencies have meant that fewer workers are required overall (which is the goal of modern businesses), thus creating a cadre of available workers who must/will work for lower wages in low skill jobs, such as food service, hospitality, telephone sales, and non-unionized assembly work.  These factors make it harder for people to “move up” to higher wages, thus enhancing our wealth inequality and keeping more young people living with their parents instead of becoming independent.  The net result of these factors is a growing number of people unemployed or employed in jobs that don’t pay a living wage.  Four percent unemployment sounds good, but that does not include those who have given up looking for work and are either living off of someone else or homeless.  (The methods of determining an unemployment rate are complex.  They include a survey of 60,000 households, which would not count those who do not have a “household.”  The difference between the “official” rate (recently four percent) and a more inclusive rate (the official rate plus “discouraged” workers, “partially attached” workers, and those working “part-time for economic reasons” seems to be about seven percent, so that the four percent reported on the news was actually around eleven percent of the adults over 18 who could be found to count.  The total, then, would be somewhat higher than that.)

Re-employment is complicated also by specialization.  Workers are advised to be ready to change types of jobs several times in their work lives, but this is much harder than is implied.  Re-training for decently-paying work becomes harder the older the worker, and businesses will always hire someone with more experience over one with less (for the lower training and retirement costs involved).  Vocational rehabilitation agencies have been around for decades but are always underfunded.  Voc rehab workers know that few people complete extensive retraining, especially those with less education to start with, and that most eventually must take lower paying work than they had before.

In addition, studies are showing that people are less likely to “move up” socioeconomically than in past decades, apparently partly due to the smaller number of good-paying jobs available and because the routes to such jobs are filled already with more qualified applicants and trainees—viz., the revolving door education of people from the same families in practically all of our elite colleges and universities., plus the fact that “who you know” counts for a lot in top levels of all businesses.

The relentless advertising that we are exposed to daily and our ridiculously low savings return have encouraged people to consume rather than save, and many use all of their available income to do so.  They are therefore immediately in deep trouble when laid off, and those with no other resources often end up homeless, because maintaining even a subsistence lifestyle these days takes a fair amount of money every month.  This segment of homeless is in my estimate about one-fourth of the total homeless and includes many families.  The amount of money needed to climb out of homelessness is quite large (first and last month’s rent, deposits, possibly getting another car, getting clothes for interviews) and poses a daunting challenge for those with zero income.  The other three-fourths of the homeless include persons with substance problems or mental illnesses (or both).  Most of the recently unemployed would like to move back into the work force, and while some of the remaining three-fourths would work if they were helped to, many are not interested in working and could not work without some degree of amelioration of their substance or mental problems.

It is of concern that there seems to be a growing underclass in our society that is unemployed and quite possibly never to be employed again, because of untreated substance and mental problems, because it is so difficult to regain one’s footing employmentwise, and because the qualifications for even the lowest level employment have increased over time.  Homeless persons adapt to their situation as homeless and often do it in a way that is troublesome to communities.  It would seem to be in our best interest as a society to minimize the size of all subsections of the homeless group and to have as many as possible gainfully employed.


As a psychologist, I am convinced that people feel better when they are doing something effective in the world that in their opinion contributes to their own welfare and also to the general welfare of the nation.  We have many people who cannot find a job or cannot find a job that pays enough to live on.  It is also true that many whom we deem to be disabled (physical restrictions, substance or mental health problems) could perform useful services, even though they cannot compete with able-bodied workers in a capitalist hiring system (where businesses try to hire the most qualified and the least costly). 

We could move toward more people working and feeling good about their working by creating job-finding assistance for all citizens, either federally or through the states and a program that guarantees a job for everyone, even if it has to be a temporary one supported by some level of government and even if it is street sweeping, ditch digging, janitorial work, envelope stuffing, park maintenance, trash collecting, clerical help, etc.  This will allow many people now unable to find jobs to work and to feel like they are contributing to society, as well as, in some cases, to gain some job skills that would make them more employable.  Their earnings could replace current disability and welfare payments in some cases and would reduce the numbers of the homeless.  This job-finding could include some level of job training as well, if needed, as well as financial support for people who must move to another city to take a job there for which they are qualified.

“Unemployment” programs for workers would probably continue, but much of “welfare” would be replaced by the income from these jobs (assuming that we also provided partially government-paid day care for all children whose parents work), and there need be no government assistance for those who refuse these temporary jobs.  This could be termed a “guaranteed income,” but it would be only for working.  Taxpayers will be paying for these salaries (or paying some portion while businesses pay some portion), but the benefit of the work to the general economy is worth more than this taxpayer money, and hopefully some of these jobs could become permanent as workers prove their worth.

Those who already have enough money to live on could be exempted from working, but the results in the lives of so many of the rich of ennui, waste, and dissolution reinforce the claim above that working is good for all of us!

Objections to this concept will probably center on doing something extra for some citizens and not for others, but there will be a cost for those who now prefer to live off of the general citizenry by not working—they will now have to work.  They will be free to find their own jobs or their own higher-paying jobs, and this could provide additional incentive for some to do just that.  Employers should not mind having the extra help if taxpayers are paying for part of that wage.  And, this plan would help those unable to find work to feel that their fellow citizens care about them and to feel better about themselves (with the correlated decrease in physical and mental problems).  It is also an action that compensates for some of the negative effects of globalization, something that all nations will have to do something about to keep their nations from splintering or having embedded class systems.  Remember, even the incomplete unemployment rate of four percent is still millions of people, and that is a lot of people who are in trouble.


Another action that would help those at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder would be to ensure that everyone working earns enough to have a “decent” life.  Employers’ desires to pay as little as possible and to not pay benefits have resulted in many part-time job and jobs that don’t pay enough for their workers to survive and have a decent life.  These workers are not given hours each week sufficient to qualify for the employer’s health plans, etc., and many of them cannot live independently but must remain with family or other benefactors.  This has increased wealth inequality in this country, and it has created a class of citizens who cannot afford a “decent” life (i.e., a life that includes one’s own owned or rented domicile, an inexpensive car, and, these days, a medium-sized TV and an inexpensive computer).  It is an insult to workers in a rich society like ours to accept that a sizeable percentage of citizens cannot make enough money for a decent life when so many of their fellow citizens have so much more.

Redistribution of wealth would be one approach to this problem—directly taking from the richer and giving to the poorer.  This would no doubt raise a storm of protest from the richer, but this calls on us to answer the question of whether we care enough about everyone in society to do anything about the current maldistribution (“unfair” distribution, according to those who think it inappropriate for any working people to be unable to live comfortably).  Higher tax rates for the richer is another approach.  (Does anyone with an income over $500,000 really need that much money to live on?  This calls on us to take a stand on whether a bigger house and a more expensive lifestyle are always “better” than what one has.)  Yet another approach would be as follows, to change the minimum hourly wage to an annual minimum income for everyone of enough money to have a “decent” life.

After determining via Congress and public debate what constitutes a “decent” life, we could determine on a regional basis the level of income needed for a decent life (separately for single persons and persons with families by size of family) and either require that employers pay that as a minimum or have the government (and taxpayers) make up the difference between employer payments and the decent-life income.  Part-time workers would receive a proportionate amount and could earn the full decent-life income by holding more than one part-time job.  Employers would be required to give part-time workers partial health insurance (if they provide health insurance as a benefit for full-time workers), proportional to their weekly hours (e.g., coverage of a smaller number of conditions).

This wage for a decent life, if paid for completely by employers, would increase some consumer prices (for fast food, restaurant meals, and any goods and services produced by workers who are not now paid a living wage).  Some employers would probably lay off some workers and raise prices if they were forced to increase pay, but we could try this and find out whether consumers will pay the new prices (and adjust elsewhere in their budgets) or do without those goods and services.    If anyone has a better idea for how all Americans who work can receive enough for a decent life, it could certainly be considered.  If business doesn’t like paying higher wages, then business can formulate another way to accomplish what is in effect a redistribution.  All employer-derived plans for accomplishing this goal of everyone earning enough for some minimally agreed upon level of living could be considered in place of this proposal. 

It will be seen by some as anti-capitalistic to require such things of employers, but given the attitudes of many in our society, employers have no incentive to pay more than the minimum that they can get away with.  Since every business would have to do the same, no businesses would be favored over others.  This plan could raise some prices and might decrease the standard of living of other taxpayers by a very small amount, but a majority of taxpayers might be willing to accommodate this in order to do away with poverty and inequality.  Some might argue that this would remove incentive for the poor to advance, but anyone who wished could advance further in income beyond this minimum level, and under this plan they would have a better base from which to do that.  Employers could still fire workers who do not meet minimum standards of performance, and employers would not be allowed to avoid having part-time employees by using overtime hours of all full-time employees.  We are in a situation where supply-demand economics is by its very nature resulting in what at least some if not many consider unacceptable human inequality and suffering, and facing up to this contradiction could help us as a nation in the future. 

There are no doubt more pros and cons of these proposals than those noted here, but we need to do something about having too few good jobs and a growing class of workers who can never afford a decent life.  The debate over these proposals would clarify the depth of concern that Americans have about their less-advantaged fellow citizens.  This does not meet the criteria for being called socialism but is something that can be decided democratically to determine whether these are actions that the people of this country wish to jointly undertake.  Capitalism has failed us in regards to wealth inequality, and globalization has led to some very unpalatable  results, which we can correct for, if we choose.