The most recent issue of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Monthly Labor Review provides a wealth of interesting—and depressing—statistics about pension coverage in the United States. The BLS’ “visual essay” documents the decline in defined benefit pensions, which now cover 18 percent of private-sector workers, down from 35 percent in the early 1990s.
Household coverage is higher, as many married couples have at least one spouse covered under a plan. Thus, a separate household survey conducted by the Federal Reserve found that 31 percent of households were covered by a defined benefit pension in 2010, though this includes households with workers employed in the public sector as well as retirees and workers covered under plans from previous jobs who are no longer accruing benefits.1
Though many workers are now enrolled in 401(k) plans, these have proven to be a poor substitute, as the typical household approaching retirement has less than two years’ worth of income saved in these accounts. The Fed survey found that the median households aged 55–64 had an income of $55,000 and just $100,000 saved in a retirement account, if they had a retirement account at all. Read more
Here’s some reading material for you from items EPI’s research team skimmed through today:
- “For Americans Under 50, Stark Findings on Health” (New York Times)
- “Public Goals, Private Interests in Debt Campaign” (New York Times)
- “The Debt Ceiling’s Escape Hatch” (New York Times)
- “Superfluous grades; StudentsFirst ranking considers performance last” (Center for Public Education)
Laura Rowley has an excellent response to the silly op-ed by Steve Cohen published in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. Cohen wrote that paying interns to deliver clothing for photo shoots, run copy machines, or clean the green room at a TV studio is dumb. The young people doing those jobs are not employees, according to Cohen; they’re simply auditioning.
Cohen admits that the grunt work he and his son did in separate internships at a law firm and a magazine was “boring, mindless, repetitious” and yet, “essential to the workings of our offices.” Nevertheless, Cohen says the chance to prove himself a good employee was so valuable to him, as was the exposure to a law office’s operations, that his employer shouldn’t have had to pay him even minimum wage.
Rowley accepts Cohen’s conclusion that his internship was valuable but says the experience shouldn’t be limited to people like Cohen (a former media executive) and his son, who can afford to work for free. What about the kids graduating from college with $50,000 of debt, or the children of factory workers or waitresses who can’t support their grown children in New York City? Should they be denied the audition, the exposure to interesting work environments, the chance to prove themselves? Read more
I know that Thomas Friedman thinks he’s making the case for a carbon tax stronger by emphasizing that it addresses the dangers of both climate change and large federal deficits, but because he’s mixing an honest-to-goodness danger (climate change) with a phantom one (increased debt in the near term), it’s not clear to me he’s helping much. To paraphrase the blogger Daniel Davies, “Good ideas don’t need a lot of misleading arguments mobilized on their behalf.” (I’d like to include a link, but he has since shut down his blog and the post is not available.)
Nevermind that Friedman starts his column by invoking the “cliff” metaphor so common in fiscal policy debates these days, and then riffs off it to decry the mounting public debt of the United States. But [and imagine my hand slapping my forehead] surely everybody knows by now that the danger of the “fiscal cliff” is one of debt rising too slowly, right? And nobody disagrees about this.
Michigan’s ‘right-to-work-for-less’ legislation: Bad for workers, undemocratic, fundamentally immoral
The Michigan “right-to-work” law that was enacted in December is bad public policy. Its supporters claim it will attract business to the state and lift incomes, though research shows the opposite is true.
By prohibiting contracts that require union-represented employees to pay dues, “right to work”—or, more accurately, “right to work for less”—gives workers a right to freeload, a right to accept the benefits of a union contract while paying nothing for the cost of organizing the union, winning the contract, or enforcing its terms. Employees can demand that the union represent them in a grievance while paying absolutely nothing for the cost of that representation. This enshrinement of freeloading was matched by the way the bill was passed—by a lame-duck legislature, without committee hearings, without an opportunity for amendment or public input.
In an amazing, impassioned speech, Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) condemned both the undemocratic way the right-to-work-for-less bill was jammed through the Michigan legislature and the immorality that animates it. Watch his short but powerful speech below:
Michelle Rhee and her misnamed school privatization organization, StudentsFirst, recently issued a report card on the nation’s schools that has been roundly criticized, and rightly so. Rhee ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia by how closely they hew to her vision of school “reform,” which involves high stakes testing, maximizing the number of charter schools, expanding voucher programs that use tax dollars to pay for private schools, and eliminating teacher tenure and pension plans. Rhee is so keen to reduce the pensions of teachers and their reward for longevity that she makes their elimination an “anchor policy” and gives it triple weight in her ranking methodology.
She also cares deeply about and grades the states on removing school governance from local control and the influence of democratically elected school boards. She prefers giving governance instead to the kind of mayoral control or state control that put her in charge of the D.C. school system under Mayor Adrian Fenty. That gets triple weight, too.
Curiously, despite Rhee’s love of high stakes testing, student performance as measured by the gold-standard test of student achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), plays no role in her ranking of the states. These “rankings” put Louisiana and Florida (both bottom 10 on the NAEP), for example, far ahead of high-achieving states like Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey, all of which ranked in the top three on the NAEP.
Doug Henwood took a close look at Rhee’s rankings and found they have a negative correlation with success on the NAEP: “[T]he higher the StudentsFirst score, the lower the NAEP reading score. The correlation on math is even worse, -0.25.”
When you consider that Rhee’s rankings actually punish states that limit class size, it’s easy to understand their negative correlation with achievement.
Rhee’s right-wing agenda of privatization, de-unionization, and the funneling of public tax dollars into corporate coffers is becoming clearer to the public—and perhaps even to her own staff. Coupled with her recent stumble over the shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., her reluctance to oppose a Michigan bill to allow concealed weapons in schools, and the PBS Frontline exposé about cheating scandals during her tenure as chancellor in D.C., Rhee and her agenda may be losing their glitz and appeal.
We can only hope so.
The New York Times and the reporters of its Dec. 26 story—“Signs of Changes Taking Hold in Electronics Factories in China”—deserve much credit for raising the profile of the abusive conditions faced by the workers making Apple products, helping to spur promises of reform. But the latest story, while portraying internal changes at Apple that could lead to reforms and describing the possibility that Apple and its competitors may advance a new manner of operating globally, provides surprisingly little evidence or analysis of the degree to which improvements have been made. It thus never gets to the heart of the matter: So far, Apple’s pledges of sweeping change have not been matched by major reforms in working conditions.
The vision painted by the story is one labor advocates, and presumably many Apple customers, share. When it comes to working hours, compensation, and other working conditions, Apple’s main supplier Foxconn will make the reforms necessary to raise standards dramatically, leading to a “ripple effect that benefits tens of millions of workers across the electronics industry.”
As ostensible evidence of Apple’s leadership and commitment to that vision, the article notes, for example, that Apple has hired 30 new staff members for its social responsibility unit and put two respected and influential former Apple executives in charge. The article also notes earlier and recent statements from Apple and Foxconn pledging to accomplish a great deal for factory workers.
The article is surprisingly thin, however, when it comes to assessing whether this vision is being fulfilled. The report includes a long vignette about the new, comfortable work chair provided to one Foxconn employee (in which the reporters argue that this helped lead her to view her job and her life prospects in a positive new manner). At other points, the article refers to some reductions in work hours, some safety improvements, a partial Foxconn response to ending the abuses of student interns, and some wage improvements. If all this sounds kind of fuzzy, that’s because it is. Read more
Here’s some good content that EPI’s research team browsed through today:
- “Canada’s guest worker program could become model for U.S. immigration changes” (Washington Post)
- “Huge Amounts Spent on Immigration, Study Finds” (New York Times)
- “Is the Trillion-Dollar Platinum Coin Clever or Insane?” (TaxVox)
- “More bogosity from Michelle Rhee” (Left Business Observer)
- “A White House Meeting With Low-Income Americans” (The Nation)
Evan Soltas’ Friday column in Bloomberg misses some of the facts on the minimum wage, and presents a false choice between raising the minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The crux of his argument is that even though raising the minimum wage would reduce inequality, likely provide some stimulus to the economy, and help to reduce poverty, liberal policymakers should not pursue it because the EITC allegedly does all this more effectively, and Republican lawmakers might be less opposed to an EITC expansion than they are to raising the federal minimum wage. Questions of political acceptance aside, the reality is that these two policy levers need each other.
There’s a critical relationship between the minimum wage and the EITC that Soltas seems to be missing. In spoken comments at a conference last year, my colleague Heidi Shierholz explained [emphasis added]:
The U.S. has two main policies designed to address the problem of low wages – the minimum wage and the EITC. The minimum wage provides a floor for the wages people get in the market, and through the tax system; the EITC provides subsidies to workers who earn low wages. The real value of the minimum wage has been allowed to erode and needs to be raised. What about the EITC? Read more
As my colleague Larry Mishel wrote in a post last week, “Fighting to preserve social insurance (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) benefits that the broad middle class depends on and making the public investments we need for growth and equity requires winning the battle over more revenues in the budget negotiations ahead.” This task will prove far more difficult now that the Bush-era income tax rate cuts have been made permanent for all taxpayers earning less than $400,000 ($450,000 for joint filers), making them a permanent part of the legislative landscape moving forward.
The Bush tax cuts, passed in 2001 and 2003, were designed to sunset after 2010 so they could pass Congress through the reconciliation process. They were extended by President Obama through 2012 so as to not raise taxes during the recession/weak recovery; additionally, in exchange for extending them two years, Obama was able to negotiate the payroll tax holiday and the extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC).
The most recent extension of these cuts has allowed conservative members of Congress (and others, like Grover Norquist) to claim victory on these tax cuts, which briefly expired on Dec. 31, 2012, only to be reinstated almost in full. Conservative representative Dave Camp (R-Mich.) summed up the situation by saying, “After more than a decade of criticizing these tax cuts, Democrats are finally joining Republicans in making them permanent.” Read more
Yesterday, my colleague Josh Bivens outlined the contours of this weekend’s 11th hour budget deal, concluding that Congress mostly monkeyed around with upper-income taxes—a politically contentious “fiscal cliff” component, but the least economically significant—leaving large swathes of scheduled fiscal restraint in place (or merely delayed a few months). For months, Josh and I have been arguing that the only real challenge facing Congress is the reality that the budget deficit closing too quickly—as it has been since mid–2010—threatens to push the economy into an austerity-induced recession. To this effect, “cliff” was a doubly misleading metaphor, as there was no single economic tipping point (underscored by President Obama signing the deal on Jan. 2, after the misguidedly hyped Jan. 1 “cliff plunge” had passed) and the legislated fiscal restraint was comprised of fully separable policies rather than an all-or-nothing dichotomy.
Viewed through the proper lens of avoiding premature austerity instead of compromising over tax policy for the top 2 percent of earners, Congress predictably failed to adequately moderate the pace of deficit reduction; short of sharply reorienting fiscal policy to accommodate accelerated recovery, U.S. trend economic growth will continue decelerating into 2013—slowing to anemic growth insufficient to keep the labor market just treading water.1 Absent substantial (seemingly remote) additional spending on public investment and transfer payments, the labor market will almost certainly deteriorate this year, regardless of what happens with sequestration and the pending debt ceiling fight. Read more
Occupational injuries and illnesses are overlooked contributors to the overall national costs of all diseases, injuries, and deaths. My recent study published in the Milbank Quarterly, “Economic Burden of Occupational Injury and Illness in the United States,” estimates these costs to be roughly $250 billion a year. This amount exceeds the costs of several other diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for the same year.
The medical costs associated with occupational disease and injury ($67 billion) are very large, but are exceeded by the productivity costs ($183 billion), which include current and future lost earnings, fringe benefits, and home production (e.g., cooking, cleaning, rearing children and doing home repairs). These costs do not in any way account for the pain and suffering caused by this heavy toll of injury and illness. They also gloss over the horror of many of the truly gruesome workplace injuries that occur, including suffocation in corn siloes, drowning in sewer pipes, electrocution, and being ground up or crushed in machinery.
By contrast, Rosamond and colleagues1 have estimated the total cost of all cancers, including medical costs and lost production, to be $219 billion in 2007, $31 billion less than the combined cost of occupational injury and illness. Yet by most accountsRead more
The House and Senate passed a budget deal over the long weekend. Headlines reported it as a deal about the “fiscal cliff.” It wasn’t. It had some good and some bad elements, but it did nearly nothing to address the actual problem that was always meant to be described by the (terribly misleading, but also terribly sticky) phrase “fiscal cliff.” This problem is simply described: the still-weak U.S. economic recovery would have been damaged by the range of tax increases and spending cuts that were set to begin taking effect on Jan. 1, 2013, because these would have reduced overall demand in the U.S. economy, and weak demand remains the reason why unemployment is too high. And this problem was at-best deferred and at-worst ignored in the deal made this weekend (note that Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin has made this exact point).
We tried to describe this problem and even put numbers to each of the main components of the “fiscal cliff” in a September report. Some key punchlines of this analysis were that the problem posed by the “fiscal cliff” was that deficits would shrink too quickly in the coming year, and that while the Bush-era tax cuts for upper-income households were the most politically contested part of the cliff, it was the automatic spending cuts (including the end of extended unemployment insurance benefits) and the payroll tax increase that were, by far, the most economically damaging parts of the cliff. In fact, the fate of upper-income tax rates was almost irrelevant, one way or the other, to economic recovery in the coming year.
So what did Congress do in this deal? They mostly monkeyed around with upper-income tax rates. Which leaves the large bulk of the fiscal contraction set for the coming year still in place, or just temporarily delayed. In short, it is very odd to describe what happened over this long weekend as a deal that addressed the “fiscal cliff.” Read more
The White House continues to maintain that it is investing in the middle class going forward, yet this clearly is not true. This is important to understand as we move toward further budget deals that could make matters worse.
The White House statement on the fiscal deal says: “This agreement will also grow the economy and shrink our deficits in a balanced way – by investing in our middle class, and by asking the wealthy to pay a little more.” And an accompanying fact sheet claims: “this agreement ensures that we can continue to make investments in education, clean energy, and manufacturing that create jobs and strengthen the middle class.”
As my colleague Ethan Pollack has pointed out, this is inconsistent with President Obama’s frequent bragging point that his budget brings the non-security portion of the budget down to record-low levels—“the lowest level since President Eisenhower.” The fact is that if you lower domestic discretionary spending, you necessarily are reducing public investments in education, research and infrastructure. As a reminder, here’s Ethan’s analysis of infrastructure, education and research and development spending in the Obama Fiscal 2013 budget:
So, if we really want to invest in the middle class—as the president claims to—we will have to increase domestic discretionary spending, not cut it further as his most recent and prior budget requests have done (the president also offered to cut domestic discretionary spending by another $100 billion in the recent negotiations). Fighting to preserve social insurance (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) benefits that the broad middle class depends on and making the public investments we need for growth and equity requires winning the battle over more revenues in the budget negotiations ahead. We should all be clear about that.
On Jan. 1, nearly a million workers in 10 states will see the value of their paychecks preserved against inflation. Workers in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington are protected each year by automatic indexing of their state’s minimum wage. Indexing links the value of the state minimum wage to inflation so that as prices go up, so does the amount that minimum-wage workers must be paid. Low-wage workers in Rhode Island will also see a small boost to their incomes in 2013 thanks to a one-time increase in their state’s minimum wage that was enacted this past June.
Table 1 summarizes the increases taking place on New Year’s Day. They range from 10 to 15 cents, with the exception of the 35 cent one-time increase in Rhode Island. Across these 10 states, roughly 855,000 workers will be directly affected, meaning that they currently earn a wage between the existing minimum and the new minimum. Another 140,000 workers with wages just above the new minimum are also likely to see a small raise as employers adjust their overall wage ladders to reflect the higher wage floor. These wage increases translate into an additional $290 million in new wages for low-wage workers, with average increases in annual pay ranging from $190 in Missouri to $510 in Rhode Island.
For a low-wage worker, these increases are a vital protection against rising costs. In states without indexingRead more
As International Migrants Day passes and 2012 comes to a close, it’s a good time to reflect on a number of impressive victories guest workers won this year against employers who exploited, abused, trafficked and robbed them. Although these legal battles have been inspiring, most employer abuses of guest worker programs and guest workers themselves occur with impunity. Even when guest workers have their day in court, the victories are sometimes just moral ones and the victims are not made whole financially. Overall, the guest worker issues litigated in American courts this year are somber reminders that many employers are using these programs to erode labor standards.
The employer abuses that have been exposed and confirmed through court proceedings—and the judgments that vindicated foreign guest workers in 2012—occurred across visa categories and skill levels. The following are some examples:
- On Dec. 17, a federal jury in California awarded a group of 350 Filipino teachers $4.5 million in damages for the economic exploitation they suffered at the hands of their labor recruiter. The teachers came to the United States through the H-1B visa program for college-educated workers, and according to the American Federation of Teachers, the Filipino teachers paid their recruiter “about $16,000—several times the average household income in the PhilippinesRead more
With headlines like “Boehner drops effort to avoid ‘fiscal cliff’” saturating the Internet today, a little clarification is sorely needed: Speaker of the House John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) so-called “Plan B” may have been many things, but it was certainly not a plan to avoid an austerity-induced recession in 2013—which is what people should be talking about, anyway, when they refer to “avoiding the fiscal cliff.” The plan would have mitigated less than one-third of the pending fiscal drags from the various components of the fiscal obstacle course (our preferred alternative to the doubly-misleading “cliff” metaphor). For the millionth time: The fundamental challenge facing policymakers is that budget deficits closing too quickly in the next couple of years will kill the anemic economic recovery, so the pace of deficit reduction must be moderated. But Boehner’s failed plan was instead fixated on accelerating the pace of deficit reduction relative to current policy.
Boehner’s Plan B consisted of two bills. The first, the Spending Reduction Act of 2012 (H.R. 6684), which narrowly passed 215-209 yesterday, would replace scheduled sequestration spending cuts for fiscal year 2013 to the Department of Defense budget with deeper sequestration cuts to nondefense discretionary spending as well as a host of mandatory spending cuts, including: Read more
If House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor act like Thelma and Louise and drive their convertible over the “fiscal cliff,” some of the only victims in the early weeks of 2013 will be the 2 million unemployed Americans currently receiving Emergency Unemployment Compensation. They will have a hard landing when Congress suddenly cuts them off from the unemployment insurance checks that are temporarily paying their bills and keeping a roof over them and their families.
Unlike in some previous budget fights, the current law says that no benefits will be paid beyond Dec. 28; there will be no phase-down for those who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks. One week, they receive unemployment insurance—the next, they won’t. And hundreds of thousands of others who would have become newly eligible for EUC in 2013 will receive nothing once their regular state benefits are exhausted.
This will also have an immediate effect on the economy, as both EPI economists Heidi Shierholz and Larry Mishel, and the Congressional Budget Office have shown. Ending $30 billion in EUC payments will remove $48 billion of economic activity from the economy, and take 300,000 to 400,000 jobs along with it.
The New York Times is reporting that President Obama is backing off his pledge to allow the Bush tax cuts on income more than $200,000 ($250,000 for couples) to expire, instead proposing to only allow the tax cuts on income above $400,000 to expire. Though not quite as bad as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s preemptive cave last summer in proposing to shift the threshold from $200,000 to $1 million, this is still a really bad idea.
Beyond the revenue loss, it’s simply ridiculous to claim that households making up to $400,000 are “middle class”; as we’ve shown before, even households up to the $200,000–250,000 threshold probably shouldn’t be considered “middle class.” Yes, it’s notoriously hard to pin down an exact definition of “middle class,” but it is clearly intended to characterize households that fall roughly in the middle of the income distribution. Yet, as the below graph shows, all the thresholds mentioned above include households whose income falls well outside the area where most households are concentrated.
This isn’t surprising. More than 87 percent of taxpayers make less than $100,000 a year, according to IRS data, and the average household makes roughly $50,000 a year. This means that households making between $200,000 and $400,000 are making between four and eight times what most American households earn. Stretching the definition of “middle class” to include households with more than $200,000 is to render the term meaningless.
An undercover documentary report recently aired on France’s public television station found disturbing new evidence that the living and working conditions of the factory workers making the iPhone 5 are grim. The new report adds to the overall picture described in Polishing Apple: Fair Labor Association gives Foxconn and Apple undue credit for labor rights progress; optimistic reports that reforms at Foxconn, which assembles the iPhone 5 for Apple, are going swimmingly are entirely premature.
- Many workers are living in unfinished dorms that have no elevators, electricity, or running water.
- Eight workers living in dorms with electricity were killed in a fire caused by workers plugging electronic devices into overloaded circuits, according to the reporters’ translation of a safety speech given by a Foxconn supervisor.
- Student workers are still being forced to work there, including Read more
One of the unfortunate side effects of the political dysfunction that has increasingly gripped the nation’s capital is a habit of lurching from one crisis to the next rather than taking time to do a bottom-up assessment of the effectiveness of current policy.
The Bush tax cuts are a great example of this. Republicans want to extend all of the Bush tax cuts, while Democrats generally support extending the tax cuts for only the bottom 98 percent of households. But few end up debating whether these tax cuts are actually optimal policy, and if perhaps a better replacement exists.
This is unfortunate, because the Bush tax cuts are pretty poor policy; in a decade of existence, they have accomplished none of the goals they were intended to achieve. In fact, judging the Bush tax cuts based on their economic impact, distributional impact, and cost, they have been an outright disaster.
Under practically any measure, the economy performed exceedingly poorly in the years following the Bush tax cuts. Of the 10 economic expansions since 1949, the economic expansion from 2001 to 2007 ranks last Read more
On International Migrants Day, remember that guest worker programs aren’t the solution for immigration reform
Although few in the United States have heard about it, Dec. 18 is known around the world as International Migrants Day. It began in part as a way to commemorate and remind governments to adopt the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, an international treaty created to protect the basic human rights of those who cross international borders—whether by choice or by force—in search of a better life. But it is also a day to recall the economic contributions of immigrants, by reminding us that most immigrants in the United States are workers—workers who toil alongside their native-born counterparts on agricultural lands, in factories, and in engineering labs. On this International Migrants Day, I am particularly hopeful that positive reforms to our immigration system may soon be enacted—reforms that will benefit and protect both immigrant and U.S. workers alike—thanks to the renewed discussions on comprehensive immigration reform that are taking place among the public, the media, on Capitol Hill and in the White House. And these discussions finally include skeptics, who until recently, considered legalization of the vulnerable unauthorized immigrant population to be unthinkable.
However, my optimism is tempered by the disturbing and uninformed comments being made by traditionally anti-worker sources like Read more