July Fourth is the celebration of our country’s independence from monarchical rule, closely following Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of enslaved people. These are our national celebrations of freedom. But, as ever, far too many in the US are still yearning to be truly free — free from want, free from fear — of eviction, job loss, medical bills, debt collectors, of falling off an economic cliff. They hope to lead lives of their own choosing, where they can exert some semblance of control. These are the many working people in the US who have been left behind even as the country has charged ahead in economic terms.
People struggling against the shackles of poverty and the restraints of economic precarity can be found in every community. A map of US counties experiencing persistent poverty reveals a legacy of deprivation and points to its historic roots. It includes the Black Belt in the South, Appalachian coal communities, migrant farmworker communities in California, a few decaying industrial communities in the North, and a striking overlap with native reservations in the West. Entrenched poverty is the legacy of peoples that have been dispossessed of their land and deprived of the fruits of their labor.
The American dream ethos envisions a society where all individuals are free to pursue opportunity and upward mobility, with hard work serving as the pathway to a better life. In today’s American economy, however, hard work is failing to yield the expected rewards. The economy has grown substantially since the 1980s, and profits have soared, but real wages have grown little. In 2019, the Brookings Institution reported that 53 million adults, 44% of working people between the ages of 18 and 64, earned low hourly wages.
During the pandemic, we came to appreciate essential workers — the workers without whom our society could not function. And yet we also saw that these workers too often earn low wages and endure dangerous and demeaning working conditions. America cannot truly be the Land of the Free until we liberate its working people and enable them to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This can only be accomplished by improving the quality of their jobs.
Unfortunately, many current policies further entrench people in their jobs, without adequately ensuring that work offers decent opportunities and, ultimately, limiting their freedom. For example, attaching work requirements to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits effectively denies food to individuals unless they are employed. This public policy perpetuates a system in which poor people are obligated to work but work itself does not guarantee freedom from poverty. We cannot continue to hold fast to the belief that work is the cure for poverty, even as we do nothing to limit the growth of poverty wage work. Just as hard work was not helping agricultural sharecroppers or coal miners paid in scrip find a path out of poverty, hard work is not leading today’s “essential workers” forward to economic security and freedom. To expand freedom, we need to improve work. There are several things that need to be done.
First, we need to reconsider what we measure. If our goal is for people to secure good jobs, then we need to assess whether the jobs are, in fact, good. We have enough data to see that many jobs would not meet the standards laid out in a broadly agreed-upon framework for defining a good job. But we need to incorporate ideas for measuring job quality into our regular assessments of the economy’s health. Additionally, we should use job quality metrics to benchmark businesses within an industry, identifying variations in job quality and opportunities for improvement. This can also create incentives for businesses receiving public contracts to enhance job quality.
Second, we should learn from history. Labor unions played a critical role in transforming work for millions of workers in the US, creating structures that gave workers more say in their workplaces and in public life. We need to rebuild and renew structures that elevate the experience of working people and genuinely give them a voice in our economy and society. As we learn from history, we should also acknowledge past mistakes. Labor unions and labor market policies that systematically excluded Black workers, women, immigrants, and other demographic groups resulted in two-tier labor markets, restricting the success of working people and leaving lasting wounds in our society. It is with this history in mind that the Aspen Business Roundtable on Organized Labor seeks to engage business leaders interested in exploring new ways to think about business success that includes an organized, empowered, and engaged workforce. Seminal labor legislation, from the Fair Labor Standards Act to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, also played an important role in transforming American jobs for the better. Legislation was essential to improving pay, establishing a regular workweek, reducing occupational illness, injury, and death, reducing child labor and establishing standards for the employment of minors, and ameliorating labor market discrimination. But laws designed decades ago do not provide adequate protections for workers today, and more is needed to advance worker rights and worker freedom.
Third, and particularly as we look to the future, we should emphasize opportunities for workers to also be owners. Support for encouraging employee ownership has garnered bipartisan support in Congress, and for valid reason. Research has shown that employee-owned companies perform well for investors and for workers, and that the idea of employee ownership is broadly popular with the public. Firms with broad-based employee ownership and an ownership culture operate by many standard business practices. However, due to the workers being owners, a perspective that prioritizes the long-term health of the firm and the community is ingrained in business decision-making. Considering the changes new technologies might bring, employee-owned firms will be better positioned to develop and deploy technologies in ways that offer broad-based benefits. Moreover, according to polling data, these firms are more likely to have the trust and support of the public.
The US did not build its middle class by sending everyone to college so that they could escape poverty-wage work. Instead, it achieved this by transforming the jobs in the then-dominant manufacturing sector from dirty, dangerous, and poorly paid jobs into good jobs. If we want to reduce poverty, expand human freedom in the US, and ensure an inclusive economy, then we need to transform America’s jobs so that all jobs are good jobs. It is possible.
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About the Author
Maureen Conway is a vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program.
The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.