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Should Americans work less?



Published: Sat, June 21, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. COLLINS

OtherWords

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew comes across as somewhat optimistic about the rather lackluster national economy.

“Evidence continues to mount that our economy is gaining traction,” Lew recently said. “Nevertheless, we cannot escape the fact that millions of Americans continue to struggle and their pain reminds us that our work is not finished … For too many families this hardly feels like a recovery.”

At least he’s being honest.

Yes, the unemployment rate is creeping downward. It declined to 6.3 percent in April, down from its Great Recession peak of 10 percent in October 2009.

But median household income, adjusted for inflation, is parked at $51,000 a year. That’s more than $4,000 below where it stood when the recession began in 2007 and has actually declined a bit since 1989.

It’s hard to see what might appear to be progress as anything other than a good news-bad news situation. Joblessness is down because new jobs are being created, but lots of new jobs are crummy. They don’t pay enough to support a small family.

And unemployment declined in part because so many of the formerly employed have given up looking and settled for part-time and otherwise sub-par gigs that don’t make the full use of their potential. Many of these folks are no longer in the workforce at all.

Families that got by well enough on two meager incomes have now settled for living poorly on one. Many stay-at-home moms and dads alike say circumstances, rather than choice, dictated their current lifestyle.

We live in a hamster-wheel economy: No matter how fast it spins or how hard workers toil, it’s not moving ahead. What’s the best way out of the economic malaise that results from chronic under-employment, persistent joblessness, and household income levels that date back before many American workers were even born?

Well, we could try what the French do: work less.

Long vacations

The French way of work includes a shorter week with fewer hours and long vacations. In other words they address the shortage of jobs by spreading the work around. People earn a more-or-less living wage for doing less than their American counterparts. It sounds awfully nice, but it’s no cure-all. French unemployment is pretty high and wages are stagnating there too.

Still, the Affordable Care Act is giving more Americans the opportunity to be more like the French by working less and even opting out of the workforce altogether. The landmark health care law lets some overburdened citizens give up their day jobs. Given the federal government’s failure to bring on an authentic economic recovery, the growing momentum in states and cities for raising the minimum wage to livable levels is injecting some light into the end of the tunnel.

What could the federal government do, aside from raising the minimum wage for everyone? One option would be to study how our country recovered from the Great Depression: undertaking big projects. Everybody got a dam, or at least a high school, or a mural.

Of course the federal government isn’t on the verge of doing anything that bold. And with a tea party unknown triggering House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s unexpected exit, Congress may move from gridlock to frozen in place.

Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. Columnist Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.


Comments

1Photoman(1003 comments)posted 2 months, 3 weeks ago

Statisticians lately seem to be pawns of the politicians, able to skew stats in whatever way benefits the party which supports them financially. Usually ignored are the true facts of those long unemployed and off the rolls; those suffering while barely surviving.

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2Jerry(498 comments)posted 2 months, 3 weeks ago

>…………”One option would be to study how our country recovered from the Great Depression: undertaking big projects.”…………..<

Really??? Once again, let’s recall the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary:

…………“We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and if I am wrong … somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises… I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started… And an enormous debt to boot!” - Henry Morganthau, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, May 1939

In April 1939, the unemployment rate was 20.7%. Anyone who believes that FDR’s policies did anything but dig us deeper into depression believes this only because they want to believe it; because they want to choose ideology over reality.

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