Worker bonuses slump 22 percent after GOP tax cuts
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employer Costs for Employee Compensation gives us a new chance to look at private sector workers’ nonproduction bonuses in 2018 and March 2019 to gauge the impact of the GOP’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The bottom line is that bonuses in the most recent quarter, March 2019, remained very low at $0.72 per hour (in $2018), the same as in December 2018 and far below their $0.88 level in 2017 or the $0.90 level in 2018.
This is not what the tax cutters promised, or bragged about soon after the tax bill passed. They claimed that their bill would raise the wages of rank-and-file workers, with congressional Republicans and members of the Trump administration promising raises of many thousands of dollars within ten years. The Trump administration’s chair of the Council of Economic Advisers argued last April that we were already seeing the positive wage impact of the tax cuts:
Following the bill’s passage, a number of corporations made conveniently-timed announcements that their workers would be getting raises or bonuses (some of which were in the works well before the tax cuts passed). But as EPI analysis has shown there are many reasons to be skeptical of the claim that the TCJA, particularly its corporate tax cuts, would produce significant wage gains.
Focus on the boom, not the slump—The Fed’s new policy framework needs to stop cutting recoveries short: EPI Macroeconomics Newsletter
For the past six months the Federal Reserve has been soliciting input to guide a reassessment of its “monetary policy framework.” This reassessment has been pegged to the 10-year anniversaries surrounding the financial crisis of 2008–09 and the Great Recession. While the Fed’s policy framework deserves much scrutiny, focusing too narrowly on what it could have done differently during the crisis and its aftermath would be a bad mistake.
The Fed failure that inflicted real damage on low- and middle-wage workers over recent decades was generally not insufficient effort in fighting recessions. Instead, the mistake was cutting short recoveries before they had maximized opportunities for employment and wage growth. In short, the time to worry about Fed actions that do not protect the interests of low- and middle-wage workers is during economic booms, not during slumps.
This newsletter explains why the Fed should keep the following points in mind as it undertakes its reassessment:Read more
Teachers are always there to help, but now we’re the ones who need a boost
The teacher shortage is real and it exists for many reasons. The question is why do we lose so many young educators? What causes them to not enter teaching? Why do many leave their chosen field after just a few years? And how can we make teaching as financially rewarding as other fields when the reality is many localities do not have the funds to raise salaries?
Many colleges and universities now require educators to have a Bachelor’s degree prior to entering an education program. After getting a Bachelor’s degree future teachers have one more year to get teaching credentials or in many cases they can spend two more years getting a Master’s degree.
In other words: teachers face the unenviable choice of incurring greater debt prior to entering the workforce or changing majors and entering the workforce after only four years with less debt but also less credentials. This is a significant problem since students average $30,000 in college debt. Some of my colleagues owe something closer to $60,000 in debt. It is the passion, the call of teaching, the desire to make a difference that leads people into education not the paychecks.
When you consider teacher’s salaries you have to ponder how someone with this much debt can afford to take a starting position with the national average starting salary less than $40,000 in 2017! Why would anyone become a teacher?
It is not surprising that education programs are now considering changing course in Virginia to make education once again a four-year degree program. If we want the best people in education we need to make it affordable to get a degree. We also need to consider the portability of that degree. Some states work with surrounding states for reciprocity of licensure, however; a teacher usually has to take additional courses if he/she relocates too far away. This presents yet another drawback.
A strong worker-centered climate agenda must be central to addressing the next recession
The world’s climate is changing at an alarming rate, and at the same time, investments to address the problem are some of the most promising opportunities to boost the economy—both immediately and in the face of any future recession.
However, if today’s investments fail to address climate change or align with the clean technologies of the future, we cannot build a competitive, prosperous, or fair economy for the long term. And it is equally true that if our climate solutions ignore working people and only reinforce today’s inequality, they will neither be lastingly effective, nor will we have any chance of building the support and momentum we need to see them become reality.
By contrast, acting on climate in ways that are focused on the needs, concerns and aspirations of working people and communities can bridge division, galvanize action, and drive sustained climate and economic progress.
This starts at all levels—local, state and national—with having working people, including labor, community, environmental, equity, and justice advocates, at the table. It requires a bold, inclusive worker-centered agenda that not only addresses our climate and environmental crises at the scale that science and equity demand but also addresses the underlying issues that leave so many Americans struggling paycheck to paycheck, and bearing the disproportionate costs of economic disruption and technological change.
We need to act now, and we also have powerful opportunities to respond to recession and economic distress.
We have the need and opportunity to act at scale. The urgency and breadth of the climate challenge has the potential to mobilize trillions in public and private investment across multiple sectors of the economy: energy, transportation, infrastructure, technology, and community resilience—just to name a few. Any one of these has the potential to be economically transformative, and could provide a major—or targeted—stimulus to the economy.
The next recession will create an opportunity to redefine the government’s role in the economy: Lessons from healthcare organizing
Healthcare in the United States, unlike in other rich nations, is sadly and dangerously tied to the business cycle—because most workers receive insurance coverage through their employers, job losses can be doubly devastating. That’s why it’s important to think about an eventual next recession as an opportunity to redefine the federal government role in the economy, and in the healthcare sector in particular.
It’s remarkable how far the healthcare debate has come in just a few short years and it’s not accidental. The last time Americans saw this level of public dialogue about changing the healthcare system was back in 2008, when Democratic candidates all vowed to reform the system and cover the growing masses of uninsured leading up to the historic election of President Barack Obama in 2008, as well as political trifecta for Democrats in Washington.
For over a year, advocates labored to pass the new law that would eventually expand coverage to 25 million more people, bringing the number of uninsured Americans to a historic low and ushering in the largest expansion of government healthcare since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Yet, despite its accomplishments and the popularity of individual provisions like pre-existing conditions protections and Medicaid expansion, the Affordable Care Act never reached consistent majority support from voters until President Donald Trump tried to repeal it in 2016.
The fight to save the ACA validated what healtchare advocates have known for years: when it comes to healthcare, most voters don’t like big change—especially changes that would take away healthcare or give the insurance industry more power to jack up prices, deny benefits and discriminate against the sickest people.
Trump’s relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid turned healthcare into a key election issue in 2018, as well as a driver of Democratic success in regaining a majority in the House of Representatives. The tremendous attention to healthcare in the first two years of the Trump era opened a window into a much larger healthcare debate that serves as a proxy for an alternative vision of the economy and our democracy—one that challenges trickle-down economics and the supremacy of free market ideology.
From the margins to the mainstream: A review of Broader, Bolder, Better
Let’s start with the ending: It can be done. And, spoiler: It works.
“It,” in the new book Broader, Bolder, Better (Harvard Education Press, June 2019), is Integrated Student Supports (ISS), or “initiatives that provide wraparound services that attend to the early-childhood years along with nutritional support, physical and mental health care, and enriching after-school and summer activities in children’s K-12 years” (p.24). Authors Elaine Weiss and Paul Reville are devoted to decipher this “it”, or ISS, in a manner that can only be of help for all communities in the country, especially for those confronting similar challenges. They explain that ISS are not unique, but diverse in most respects. They exist in communities that are small and large, new and old, southern and northern, rural and urban, progressive and conservative. The 12 initiatives—working in school districts such as Joplin, Missouri; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Montgomery County, Maryland; Pea Ridge, Arkansas; or Vancouver, Washington; in part of them, including Austin, Texas; Durham, North Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New York City, New York; or Orlando, Florida; or across multiple school districts, such as Eastern (Appalachian) Kentucky—that are described in the book in a systematic, transparent, cohesive, and constructive manner are success cases—models that can be used to create “whole-child systems of education” (p.24). The book classifies the cases by their various types of ISS strategy they employ, including community schools, Promise Neighborhoods, Bright Futures USA, and PROMISE Scholarships. They tailored the services and supports they needed to tackle their specific unmet needs, and found the components, wisdom, resources, and agreements needed to offer those services.
The 12 cases exemplify that these practices can be adopted elsewhere, provided certain commonalities are found. What the successful cases share includes, in the first place, that all communities deeply care about the root problem: poverty in any of its shapes and manifestations (pp. 3-21, and others). There’s no question that all of the communities want to break the vicious cycle that promises to link today’s merit and education performance with future wellbeing, but gluing students’ current social class to their educational opportunities and their progress in school really works more backwards than forward. The 12 communities also show a serious understanding of what it takes to redress the consequences of being born in poverty, i.e., that the efforts need to be holistic, continued, sufficient, and shared. The communities also present ISS provided as surpluses, not as deficits, helping overcome the old belief that poverty was sort of an excuse, sidelining it as the core driver of achievement gaps, as Elaine Weiss explained in the release event of the book at EPI. In addition, these communities, which heavily rely on evidence-based effective solutions, implemented systems to monitor the interventions—including systems that allowed for developmental, individualized, inputs, and outcomes. This information is essential because it is what demonstrates the success and the continuous benefits of doing this right. Lastly, knowledge and creativity are also typical as they can help trim down the exact menu of supports and services, as well as the ideal ISS strategy, that each community needs. Though the authors acknowledge that “no single system can serve as a template,” (p. 43), another view of this is that any could become such template for a given community, or that certainly all validate ISS as a model that works and can be implemented.
Presenting EPI’s ‘Budget for Shared Prosperity’
Today EPI is participating in the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s “Solutions Initiative,” along with several other research and policy institutions. For this project, we submitted a model tax and budget plan. The revenues were scored by the Tax Policy Center (TPC) and the spending was scored by former officials of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Normally in DC policymaking discussions, model tax and budget plans are constructed near-solely for the purpose of showing how a mix of tax increases and spending cuts can lead to lower budget deficits. But, while bending revenues closer to spending in a spreadsheet is a fairly trivial exercise, the real-world effects of changes in taxes and spending are often not trivial at all. To take just one example, the poverty rate of elderly households fell extraordinarily rapidly as Social Security spending rose in the mid-20th century. Ignoring this tremendous progressive achievement and instead seeing Social Security as just a budget line-item that can be trimmed to move expenditures and revenues closer together would be an extraordinarily myopic way to think about economic policy.
To ensure that we were keeping the big picture in mind while constructing our plan, we began by undertaking a diagnosis of the most-pressing economic problems facing the vast majority of U.S. households. We identified them as follows:
- Economic growth has been slow for almost two decades. The roots of this slow growth are too-slack aggregate demand for most of this period and anemic growth in productivity caused largely by weak private investment.
- Slow growth in recent decades has not been accompanied by any progress at all in reversing the huge upward redistribution of income that characterized previous decades—in fact, by many measures inequality has continued to rise.
- Taxes and spending in the United States are far smaller than in most other rich countries around the world. We expend far less fiscal effort in income support programs that fight poverty, social insurance programs that provide broad-based economic security, and public investments that spur growth.
- The most-glaring outcome of the small fiscal footprint in the U.S. economy is a health sector that is inefficient and unfair. Our health care system provides coverage to a smaller share of our population, delivers less health care, obtains worse health outcomes, and yet places a far greater economic burden on households than in almost any other rich country.
Misleading and biased research: Why a report on arbitration by a Chamber of Commerce affiliate is just plain wrong
We recently wrote a piece in the American Prospect analyzing a recent report on arbitration by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform—an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—that we found to be misleading and riddled with errors. In this blog post, written especially for those policy wonks who can’t get enough, we share more details about what’s wrong with the report.
The report—touting arbitration’s supposed benefits for workers—arrived just in time to be cited at a House hearing last month. That’s unlikely to be the last of it. The report will surely be presented by corporate lobbyists to a coterie of undecided legislators—legislators who care about access to justice and who are genuinely concerned about the impact of forced arbitration, but who also want to be responsive to the concerns raised by businesses that use it. The danger is that these legislators will believe the report’s spurious conclusion that arbitration is better for workers and vote accordingly.
Some initial skepticism is obviously in order. With its history of opposing reforms like paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, and strong overtime protections, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not an institution that is generally known as a champion of workers’ rights. And the report (entitled “Fairer, Faster, Better”) was written by a consulting firm that’s published previous reports like “Regulations: the more is not the merrier” and “The Regulatory Impact on Small Business: Complex. Cumbersome. Costly.”
Farmworkers in New York deserve overtime pay
After decades of advocacy, New York stands at the brink of potentially passing the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill that would extend to the agricultural sector the right to organize and the right to overtime pay that most workers in other industries enjoy. Governor Cuomo has said he will sign the measure if it passes.
Democrats recently took leadership of the state senate and have a longstanding majority in the state assembly. Both chambers have an opportunity to take advantage of those majorities in a way that results in a historic improvement for the lives of workers who toil in difficult conditions for low pay in New York’s fields and dairies.
But victory is far from certain: plenty could happen between now and June 19, when New York’s legislative session ends. The New York Farm Bureau, unsurprisingly, is saying the bill “could dramatically change agriculture and hurt our rural economy.”
A new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) shows how the bill will help farmworkers, be manageable for farm owners, and offer tangible benefits to local communities.
The bill will most obviously be a gain for farmworkers in New York. On average, it will increase weekly earnings by between $34 and $95 per week. That’s money that will also be spent in the local economy, helping boost local businesses (and adding to sales tax revenues).
Other states have enacted laws requiring that at least some overtime be paid to farmworkers after a certain number of hours. In California—the largest agricultural state by far with over $50 billion in cash receipts going to farms and ranches—the legislature and governor enacted a law in late 2016 that gradually phases in overtime pay for farmworkers beginning this year.
The law will eventually require that farmworkers be paid overtime after eight hours per day or 40 hours per week in 2022. While agribusiness has complained and fought against passage of the law for years, after five months of being the law in the state, there have not been any major negative impacts on business or production reported in California. If overtime for farmworkers can work in California, it can work in New York.
Farm owners have had some tough years, to be sure. But treating workers properly is a way of aligning interests so that legislators and New Yorkers can all feel good about supporting New York farms. The cost of providing overtime to farmworkers in New York is manageable. It would amount to 9 percent of net farm income if all of the costs came out of the bottom line. And, that’s not what would happen. In fact, the farm owners would see some benefits that would offset the costs, including decreased training and recruiting costs, and higher productivity.
A few people have worried that this would push up prices. Not so. In fact, FPI is not predicting that costs will go up at all: Farm owners say they can’t control prices, and we accept that idea in general, even if it may be an overstatement. But even if all of the costs were passed along to consumers, prices would increase just 2 percent.
And for those who do worry about price increases—even if there are no savings from increased productivity and even if the farm owners take no loss in profit—the increase in prices would be the equivalent of raising the price of apples at the farmer’s market from $1.50 to $1.53 per pound. Hardly a devastating difference.
It’s worth taking a moment to think about why farmworkers are currently exempted from the labor regulations that apply to other workers in the state. The history goes back to Jim Crow, and a time when most hired farmworkers were African American, as a recent report from the National Employment Law Project explains.
Today, the workers hired are also predominantly people of color, often immigrants, many are Latinos and Latinas, and some work without documentation. Increasing numbers are also temporary migrant “guest” workers in the H-2A visa program: in New York H-2A jobs certified went from 4,699 in 2013 up to 7,634 in 2018, accounting for about 14 percent of the 56,000 hired farm laborers in the state.
Why was it, again, that the rules that apply to other workers in New York State shouldn’t also apply to people who work on farms?
There are only two weeks left in New York’s legislative session and the living standards and labor standards of the state’s farmworkers hang in the balance. The legislature and governor should enact the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, so New Yorkers can all feel good about buying local and supporting New York’s farms.
What to Watch on Jobs Day: Continued strength or more labor market hiccups?
This week, ADP estimated that private sector employment increased by only 27,000 in May. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will release their estimates of May job growth this Friday morning, and the extremely slow pace of hiring reported by ADP will have many people paying attention. The obvious question following the ADP numbers is just how worried should we be that a substantial economic slowdown is upon us?
While any single monthly data indicator should be taken with a large grain of salt, there are some real signs that the economy may be slowing a bit. The weak ADP report isn’t the first big hiccup in employment estimates in recent months. The BLS estimated just 56,000 jobs were created in February (46,000 for the private sector). The last three months of payroll employment showed an average increase of only 169,000 (154,000 private) compared to a much stronger 245,000 (240,000 private) in the previous three months.
EPI’s nominal wage tracker shows a distinct leveling off as well in very recent months. After pretty sharp and steady improvements in year-over-year wage growth between 2017 and 2018, wage growth gains seem to have tapered off. On average, wages grew 2.6 percent in both 2016 and 2017. In 2018, they grew an average of 3.0 percent over the year. Wages continued to rise in the latter half of 2018, and averaged 3.3 percent in the last quarter of the year. Wage growth has remained at 3.3 percent for the first four months of this year. In a stronger economy wage growth would be above 3.5 percent and if the recovery continues on course, I expect we will get there. To be at genuine full employment, wage growth would have to be at least 3.5 percent for a consistent period of time to allow labor share of corporate sector income to recover.
MIT economist Simon Johnson wants to ramp up federal investment on science and technology—and make sure taxpayers get a cash dividend in return
There is no shortage of creativity in the American economy—as long as we get away from the myth that denigrates public investments and puts private business on a pedestal.
That’s the message from MIT Sloan Economist Simon Johnson’s new book, “Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream,” which he presented during a talk and Q&A here at EPI this week.
Johnson, in a book co-authored with his colleague Jonathan Gruber, traces the history of America’s rapid economic ascent after World War II in part to heavy doses of public spending and incentives for scientific discovery and technological innovation.
He says the government’s abandonment of this commitment has not only chipped away at America’s economic and cultural leadership globally but also cost workers and firms enormously in terms of lost productivity, wages, and profits.
Johnson highlighted a decline in federal spending on research and development from a 1964 peak of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to just 0.7 percent today.
“Converted to the same fraction of GDP today, that decline represents roughly $240 billion per year that we no longer spend on creating the next generation of good jobs,” Gruber and Johnson write in the book.
Teaching—an important job, but a challenging work environment
We received some useful comments on the first reports of the teacher shortage series, both by email and through social media. One was particularly surprising—aside from slightly premonitory at that time (as its contents were related to a “to be released” report).
Ms. Whisler, a teacher herself according to her profile, wrote: “After 6 years of teaching high school social studies, my son is changing careers to become a firefighter. Less stressful he says.”
YES! after 6 years of teaching high school social studies my son is changing careers to become a firefighter. Less stressful he says
— Karen Whisler (@Kndrgrtn) March 28, 2019
Of course anecdotal evidence is not scientific evidence, but Ms. Whisler’s case felt enlightening. What could make teaching so stressful that would expel teachers out? How can teaching rank higher in stress than working as a firefighter? Regardless, would it matter if this were not a problem at a larger scale?
EPI released a report this week—Challenging working environments (“school climate”), especially in high-poverty schools, play a role in the teacher shortage—that describes the school climate and the scale for the shares of teachers facing such challenges. The school climate is shaped by multiple factors, including: the presence of barriers to teaching and learning, the stress and threats to safety, the relationships between teachers, administrators, and colleagues, the dismissal of teachers’ voices and knowledge, and teachers’ satisfaction and motivation. In short, the patters we describe for most of these indicators are tough in manners that would lead most of us to consider switching jobs, were we to face them. This is also seen, descriptively, for teachers, which implicates tough school climates in the teacher shortage. Some of the findings of our 4th report in our series examining the teacher shortage are as follows (see Figure A).
School climate indicators are tough across the board
|Parents struggle to be involved||21.5%|
|Students are not prepared to learn||27.3%|
|Have been threatened||21.8%|
|Have been physically attacked||12.4%|
|Stress and disappointments outweigh positives||4.9%|
|Staff cooperation is not great||61.6%|
|No significant role in setting curriculum||79.6%|
|No significant say over what I teach in class||71.3%|
|Not fully satisfied with teaching here||48.7%|
|Plan to quit teaching at some point||27.4%|
Note: Data are for teachers in public noncharter schools. See notes to Tables 1–6 for full definitions of the given indicators.
Source: 2015–2016 National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS) microdata from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
Many teachers face the learning barriers their students arrive at school with. Just like these barriers impede children’s learning, they are also obstacles for teachers to do their jobs well. Between two and three in ten teachers see that students coming to school unprepared to learn (27.3 percent) or that parents struggle to be involved (21.5 percent) are serious problems for the school, and even a small share see students’ poor health as a problem (5.1 percent). The relationships between teachers, administrators, colleagues, and parents are described by teachers as being not fully supportive, and their voices and influence over school policy and in their classrooms as being often quieted or ignored. Significantly, even though most would think teachers have full autonomy in their classrooms, in tasks such as selecting content, topics or skills to be taught, textbooks and other instructional materials, less than 30 percent recognize they have a great deal of control of such aspects. About 12 percent teachers have been physically attacked by a student from that school and almost twice that have been threatened. These previous statistics may make the following data point look small—that about 5.9 percent of teachers strongly agree that the stress and disappointments in teaching are not worth it. However, it is not to be dismissed, because of its meaning and repercussions—for Ms. Whisler’s son and for everybody else. . We see that about half of the teachers express some level of dissatisfaction with being a teacher in their school (48.7 percent), more than one-quarter think about leaving teaching at some point (27.4 percent), and 57.5 percent are not certain that they would become teachers again if they could go back to their college days and make a decision again.
The time to prepare for the next recession is now
The Republican-controlled Senate has accomplished what it wished with a one sided tax giveaway to corporations and the super-rich—it has no interest in a legislative agenda left. Yet, while the economy continues to grow, there are sharp warning signs because of the exacerbation of income inequality in the United States that threaten the expansion’s sustainability. These yellow flags point to an economy that has little resiliency and so is very vulnerable to shocks.
Now is the time to create legislative markers, set legislative records and flesh out details of fixes that could be quickly passed should the political dynamics change in 2020. I would argue that, in this climate, it is necessary to triage such efforts, so as not to detract from other important legislative markers that must be passed by the Democratic controlled House of Representatives, so that in 2020 a clear set of programs is also ready to address ever-expanding inequality.
The urgency comes after the historic 2007-2009 downturn showed just how much the divide between Democrats and Republicans turned economic misfortune into a game of political opportunity. Americans found out it was a lie when they had repeatedly been told that Social Security privatization was a fine idea because if the stock market tanked, home prices dove and jobs disappeared Congress would respond to the needs of ordinary Americans. Instead, no consensus could be reached on policies to help workers. Income relief, to compensate for lost job opportunities, lost retirement savings, or devalued housing assets, became political fodder for a larger ideological battle aimed at narrow political victories.
The other problem we face is that the 2008 downturn was likely unique in its size. Because of the size of the housing market, a financial crisis rooted in the decline of the primary household asset is not likely to re-occur. Consequently, the economy is more likely to face a downturn the size of the one that took place in 2001. It should be noted, however, that the downturn in 2001 was accompanied by a huge tax cut, initially targeted at the wealthy, but balanced by a Democratic-controlled Senate to also benefit middle-income households for its initial years.
Still, with the tail winds of easing monetary policy following the stock market bubble burst from the dotcom calamity and the economic malaise following September 11 and the huge stimulus of a large tax cut, and a deficit propelled by massive expenditures for the Iraq War, it still took until March 2007 to get payroll numbers back up to their February 2001 level. So, if an unprecedented job loss in 2008-2009 could not generate a consensus to address a downturn, there is little chance a milder downturn will generate better behaviors.
Recession or not, there will be pain: Coping with corporate bonds
If the current economic expansion which began in June 2009 makes it to this July, it will set a record for the longest period of U.S. economic growth—beating the 1991 to 2001 boom. Economic expansions don’t die of old age, however, so what might bring this one to an end?
With memories of 2008-2009 still fresh, some observers have focused on corporate debt as the likely culprit. It’s true that corporate debt has risen rapidly during the expansion, both in absolute terms and in relation to corporate profits. But low interest rates mean that debt service—interest payments on this debt relative to after-tax profit—is about 25 percent, where it usually is during periods of expansion and not a cause for worry. Bank regulators are concerned about the rapid growth of leveraged loans and weaker lender protections. But they appear to be correct in their assessment that leveraged lending, despite a 20 percent growth since last year to almost $1.2 trillion, “isn’t a current threat to the financial system.”
Still, recession or no recession, there will be pain.
A large and growing share of corporate debt is “speculative debt”—either leveraged loans used to acquire target companies and burden them with high debt levels or high risk junk bonds. Many companies with high levels of speculative debt on their books were acquired by private equity in a leveraged buyout, meaning the PE firm used high amounts of debt to buy them. This is debt the target companies, not their private equity owners, are obligated to repay.
Often, these PE-owned companies are required to issue junk bonds and further increase their indebtedness in order to pay dividends to their owners. A 100-day plan imposed on company managers at the time of the buyout lays out the steps that the company will need to take to service this mountain of debt. Reducing labor costs is a big part of these plans, whether by closing less profitable stores and establishments, laying off workers at those it continues to operate, or cutting pay and benefits. After it takes these steps to manage its debt, the company is on a knife-edge.
If all the assumptions made by the private equity firm when it persuaded creditors to lend it boatloads of money hold up, the company will avoid defaulting on its loans and going bankrupt. But if these assumptions are upended—say, by a slowdown in the economy, defaults and bankruptcies will spike. Creditors who have loaned billions of dollars to finance private equity-sponsored leverage buyouts will experience losses. Establishments will be shuttered, some companies will be liquidated, workers will lose their jobs, and communities will lose businesses that have played a key role in the local economy.
‘Forced’ is never fair: What labor arbitration teaches us about arbitration done right—and wrong
As of September 2017, more than 60 million American workers were subject to predispute arbitration “agreements” with their employers. This means that in exchange for the right to get or keep their job, they are forced to agree that if a dispute comes up in the future involving their employment, they won’t bring that dispute in court but will instead take it to a private arbitrator—usually in secret proceedings conducted behind closed doors, under terms dictated by the employer.
The percentage of workers whose employers require them to give up the right to go to court in exchange for their jobs has increased dramatically over the past 25 years, from just 2 percent in 1992 to over 55 percent in 2017. And that figure is climbing even higher in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 opinion in 2018 in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, which said that employers can impose arbitration contracts on their workers even when one of the terms of the contract is that workers must bring their disputes one at a time and may not join forces with their colleagues to pursue claims collectively. A new report from EPI and the Center for Popular Democracy projects that by 2024, over 80 percent of private-sector, nonunionized workers will be subject to forced arbitration regimes that ban class or collective actions.
Despite its growing prevalence, many American workers still don’t know what arbitration is and don’t realize what rights they’re giving up when they sign the document (or click the button on a computer screen) saying they will resolve future disputes in this manner. But for the 14.7 million workers who belonged to a union in 2018, arbitration may not be such a foreign concept, because arbitration has been a fixture in most unionized workplaces for decades.
‘Schools are no longer just institutions of learning—we are the primary hub of care outside the family’
My colleague Elaine Weiss launched her new book Broader, Bolder, Better on the challenges facing teachers around the country at an EPI event this week by emphasizing the need for policymakers and researchers to listen to educators themselves rather than imposing their biases on the pros.
Truly moving remarks from guest of honor Joy Kirk, a middle-school teacher from Fredrick County, Va., made quite clear why that’s a sound strategy.
Kirk described the transition she has witnessed in the role of teachers and schools as anchors in the community over her 24 years of teaching, which began in urban Philadelphia before she moved to a more rural setting.
“Schools are no longer just institutions of learning. We are the primary hub of care outside the family,” she said, a stark reality considering the deeply under-resourced state of so many of the country’s schools.
“And for some of our students, we are their only safe place, because if you’re suffering violence at home, if you’re suffering upheaval, if your parents are constantly moving because they can’t hold a steady job—for whatever that reason is—your one safe place is your teacher’s classroom,” she said.
Weiss’s book is the culmination of years of research into how schools can proactively help to counter some of the social strains in various communities, by promoting innovative and targeted approaches to solve every day problems.
“Our book is grounded in community voice and celebrates teacher activism,” Weiss explains in a blog post. “It calls out the consequences of structural racism and urges community leaders to translate their daily witnessing of the impacts of poverty into partnerships with the schools that are on the front lines of combating it. It thanks the local and community leaders who are already walking this walk and asks all of us to find ways to further support them.”
A progressive strategy for addressing the next recession must include a deliberate, strategic focus on states and localities
No one can say with any certainty when the next recession will come, yet it’s clear that progressive advocates and policymakers should begin preparing now so they are ready to confront the challenges—and opportunities—a downturn presents.
As advocates, we should mobilize around two key strategies to respond to the next recession. The first strategy is to build demand at the state and local level for a large federal stimulus package that includes significant, lasting aid to the states. We should campaign actively against the notion advanced by the right wing and even moderate Democrats that there isn’t enough “fiscal space” to bail out workers and their communities during a recession. (Saying there’s not enough fiscal space is econ-speak for pretending the federal government doesn’t have the ability to run a deficit to support important programs in times of crisis).
The second strategy—which I will focus on here—is to ensure the progressive community has a strategic plan to mobilize communities and progressive state policymakers to develop a state-specific program for addressing the next recession. Governors and state legislators play an enormous role during a recession, and the policy and political choices they make in preparation for, during, and after a recession help determine how well communities weather a slump, and how quickly their state bounces back once the recession is officially over.
Ohio’s economy no longer fully recovers after recessions
I can’t tell you when or whether a recession is coming. But I can tell you what it means for a place like Ohio when one arrives and what Ohio needs from policymakers, state and federal, to be ready and to recover. After a generation of underinvestment in families, communities and sustainability, the upcoming downturn is a crucial moment to fix the economy by addressing gaping societal needs.
Four points are clear for Ohio and other places. First, recessions are much harder on some economies than on others—this goes for states, like Ohio, that are hit harder, and for communities, like manufacturing communities, poor rural communities, and much of the black community. Second, recessions start earlier and end later in America than in the financial press, in terms of pain they visit on people. In Ohio, we no longer fully recover from recessions, so each new downturn leaves permanent setback. Third, states have insufficient capacity to take on the challenges of a recession. Federal action is essential to get the recovery we need. Finally, recessions are not only economic challenges cured the instant unemployment creeps downward or some jobs come back. In fact, recessions cause long-term damage—to savings and earnings, yes—but also to children’s development, family stability, and long-term physical and psychological well-being.
Job loss and unemployment
First and most importantly, a recession means large scale job losses. This is often particularly severe in manufacturing states like Ohio. As many as 30 million Americans lost jobs during the Great Recession. In Ohio, we actually had not recovered jobs lost in the early 2000s recession by the time the Great Recession hit in 2007. More than 415,000 more jobs were slashed by February 2010 and the 2018 data revisions showed we again haven’t fully recovered—we need 16,300 jobs to reach pre-recession employment levels (reflecting population growth).
Broader, Bolder, Better: We’ve come a long way
When the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) was launched over ten years ago, EPI—Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein, in particular—hoped it would have a major positive impact on the education policy field, but we could not have predicted how big that impact would turn out to be.
Over that decade, BBA became an anchor for the growing chorus of voices pointing to poverty’s impacts on teachers’ ability to do their jobs well and students’ capacity to learn effectively. We stood with teachers, principals, and school district leaders to push for policies that alleviated those impacts. We collaborated with leading scholars to produce seminal reports that revealed the major flaws of policy strategies that rely heavily on student test scores to make decisions. And we used the results of those reports to arm student and parent organizers with evidence to defend their schools from threatened closures and to advocate, instead, for their conversion in New York City, Newark, Chicago, and Philadelphia, to full-service community schools.
We have lifted up the voices of teachers, in those reports and elsewhere. In a series of blog posts, we collaborated with dedicated educators from across the country to document the impact of student and community poverty in their classrooms every day. We wrote about the shame hungry high school students feel and their teachers’ anger and frustration at their lack the resources to help. We illuminated the consequences of structural racism in the Mississippi Delta, where African American students still rely on leftover books and supplies that wealthier white students and the schools serving them literally dumped. We shined a spotlight on innovative strategies principals are employing in rural Appalachia to compensate for their students’ extreme social and economic isolation, like Skype mentoring and field trips that provide their first visit to a city, college, or prospective future job.
There’s no economic constraint on the fiscal space available to fight the next recession
The next recession has not begun—and might not even be all that close at hand—but events where people are talking about the Next Recession have definitely started.
The event we co-sponsored last month on the next recession and essays from the panelists can be seen here. It’s worth checking out. A highlight was the keynote by Christina Romer, who served as the first chief economist for the Obama administration as it was taking office in the face of the Great Recession. Romer established a reputation as a firm advocate for fighting the recession with aggressive and sustained fiscal stimulus. In retrospect, her recommendations were clearly right, and if politics had let them win the day, tens of millions of Americans would have suffered far less in the past decade.
A conventional wisdom has emerged in recent years that an aggressive and sustained fiscal stimulus won’t be possible during the next recession. This argument is that the U.S. lacks the “fiscal space” needed to undertake this type of fiscal stimulus because its debt-to-GDP ratio is too high. During the first panel, a number of panelists and I made the case that this conventional wisdom is wrong; there is nothing to stop policymakers from undertaking needed fiscal stimulus during the next recession – except their own potential errors in judgment (this argument was also a theme of a paper I wrote for the event).
During her speech, Professor Romer made an argument that may have surprised some; she pointed to recent work she had done showing evidence that, in the past, high debt-to-GDP ratios really were associated with less-aggressive fiscal stimulus following financial crises. She pointed to this evidence for why she advocates reining in the growth of public debt as a key strategy for preparing for the next recession. She singled out the 2017 tax cut as a key example of what not to do when preparing for the next recession.
Trump and Kushner’s ‘merit-based’ immigration plan fails to propose the smart reforms needed to modernize and improve U.S. labor migration
One of the elements in the Jared Kushner immigration plan detailed by in Donald Trump’s speech on Thursday in the White House Rose Garden would change the proportion of green cards to vastly increase the share issued in the employment-based (EB) preference categories.
“Green cards,” as they’re commonly referred to, are immigrant visas that confer lawful permanent resident status on foreign citizens and allow new immigrants to remain in the United States permanently and obtain citizenship after five years. Trump has proposed to change the EB share of the total 1.1 million green cards issued every year from 12 percent to 57 percent and claims it would make the system more “merit-based.” This would be achieved by reducing the numbers of visas allocated based on family ties (66 percent in 2017) and the Diversity Visa lottery (4.6 percent in 2017) and increasing the EB category, and the EB visas would be renamed “Build America Visas” and prioritize advanced education and skills, and rank potential immigrants according to a new points system. Trump also noted that “we’d like to see if we can go higher” than 57 percent.
In reality, although only 12 percent of current green cards are allocated for new immigrants arriving with jobs or skills, many of the new green card holders coming to the United States through other categories are also well-educated, including in the family and diversity preferences. And within the EB categories, very few migrants are able to come to the United States as permanent immigrants with a path to citizenship if they work in lower-wage, lesser-skilled occupations. The EB third preference caps the number of “unskilled” workers at 10,000 per year, however that cap has been temporarily reduced to 5,000 since 2002, and only approximately half of that reduced cap has been used in the past five years. In other words, the system is already dominated by immigrants with skills and degrees and quite exclusionary towards those without them. We should rethink the system rather than double-down on it.
As some commentators and Democratic legislators have noted, the Trump/Kushner proposal is probably “dead on arrival” and unlikely to translate into legislation that can pass the House and Senate, in part because it lacks a proposal for legalizing the 11 million unauthorized immigrants or the subset of them that are protected by DACA and TPS. Nevertheless, it is worth examining because Trump is using the broadly-outlined plan devised by his son-in-law as a platform to unite the Republican party on immigration and show that they are “for” something on immigration, and not just against every conceivable type of immigration.
Zero Weeks plus Ellen Bravo on the importance of paid family and medical leave
The Economic Policy Institute had the distinct pleasure this week of hosting a showing of Ky Dickens’ new film, Zero Weeks, with a special Q&A with renowned paid leave advocate, Ellen Bravo.
The film gives the audience a glimpse into the lives of several workers and their families as they struggle to balance their own health needs and that of their families without the ability to take time off from work. A lifelong activist and leading expert on work-family issues, Ellen offered up her wide breadth and depth of her experiences and expertise following the film, sharing the long fight across the country to improve workers ability to earn paid time off to care for themselves and their families in times of need.
In 1993, the United States passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave within a calendar year for a serious health condition, the birth of a child or to care for a newly born, adopted, or foster child, or to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition. While it’s important to celebrate that important milestone, federal action stopped 26 years ago.
Furthermore, because eligibility for FMLA is limited based on size of firm, work hours, and tenure at job, the FMLA only provides access to unpaid leave to an estimated 56 percent of the workforce. But the largest loophole in the FMLA is that it is unpaid, so many workers who would want to take advantage of it to care for themselves or a family member, simply cannot afford to.
Workers have to make difficult choices between their careers and their caregiving responsibilities precisely when they need their paychecks the most, such as following the birth of a child or when they or a loved one falls ill. This lack of choice can often lead workers to not take any leave or cut their leave short; about 45% of FMLA-eligible workers did not take leave because they could not afford unpaid leave and among workers who took time off for caregiving responsibilities, about one-third of leave-takers cut their time off short due to lost wages.
Fighting inequality is key to preparing for the next recession
The failure to make a serious dent in high levels of economic inequality in recent years will make responding effectively to the next inevitable recession more difficult, both economically and politically.
Rising income and wealth inequality, combined with financial deregulation and the expanding financialization of the U.S. economy, led to the credit boom and crash that substantially deepened the resulting economic crisis in 2008. Fiscal stimulus during the Great Recession prevented the economy from collapsing completely but was still insufficient and phased out too soon. What’s more, instead of taking lessons from our experiences a decade ago and strengthening our recession-fighting tools, recent policies passed by Congress have focused on cutting taxes, reduced the perceived space we have to increase spending in a downturn and exacerbated income and wealth disparities in the United States.
First, let’s zoom out. Recessions aren’t just one-offs. They are part of the economic cycle. Aggregate demand in the economy expands and contracts over time and recessions occur during prolonged contractions, which are more likely when economic inequality distorts consumption and savings. Inequality also affects the time it takes to recover from recessions because it subverts our institutions and makes our political system ineffective. Lifting the economy out of a downturn requires decisive government action to boost spending and aggregate demand, which often runs counter to the primary interests of those with economic and political power. As entrenched interests continually hamstring the government’s capacity to respond to a recession, policymakers should act now to prepare for the next one by addressing inequality in the United States.
The Great Recession, education, race, and homeownership
The Great Recession was associated with a dramatic reduction in the wealth of millions of Americans, particularly wealth in the form of home equity. The net worth of the typical household plunged by 40 percent, or about $50,000, as a result of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.1 Of course, these detrimental effects were not felt equally by all groups. Relative to white wealth, black wealth was hit especially hard by the Great Recession. Blacks saw their median net worth fall precipitously compared with whites (that is, in percentage terms, not in absolute terms).2 Between 2005 and 2009, the median net worth of black households dropped by 53 percent, while white household net worth dropped by 17 percent.3
Yet whether we look at the racial wealth gap before or after the Great Recession, the disparity between blacks and whites is persistent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, in 2005 blacks had relative holdings of nine cents on the dollar compared with whites—this fell to just five cents in 2009 and inched up to six cents in 2011. In this sense, the Great Recession did not wipe out black wealth but decimated the very modest bit of wealth accumulated by blacks. While the economy continues to recover, and while some point to recent increases in the homeownership rate, we are alarmed by evidence that black college graduates may be falling even further behind in this new paradigm.4
First, we find that long-standing racial disparities in homeownership have worsened in the post-recession recovery. Second, we find that the Great Recession left black college graduates facing enhanced barriers in the housing market. While a bachelor’s degree is often framed as a reliable stepping stone on the path to economic security, our findings add to a growing literature that challenges that accepted wisdom. Research by Hamilton et al. finds that black households headed by a college graduate have less wealth than white households headed by someone who dropped out of high school.5
In particular, we use the Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition technique to demonstrate that the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of college-educated blacks are explaining less and less of the racial difference in homeownership rates, in turn suggesting that structural barriers (including the criteria by which homes are financed), discrimination in lending and housing markets, and initial wealth itself are playing an increased and racially uneven role in the manner in which college-educated Americans are acquiring new homes.6
Disparities in homeownership rates, 2004 to 2017
Trump’s China tariff confusion: It won’t solve chronic trade deficits
The wizard of the White House roared last week, and markets quaked from Shanghai to London. In the face of Beijing’s refusal to meet U.S. demands on intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer, President Donald Trump is ramping up tariffs on Chinese imports.
This may prove to be another ploy to coerce a trade deal from China’s negotiating team. But while president can indeed impose draconian tariffs on imports from China, it still won’t solve the most fundamental trade problem for America: chronic trade deficits.
To be sure, China is a growing problem for the U.S. economy. Last year, the United States racked up a $419 billion goods trade deficit with China—almost half of the nation’s entire international goods deficit.
And the U.S. has lost at least 3.4 million good-paying jobs, including 136,100 jobs in Pennsylvania, mostly in manufacturing, due to growing trade deficits with China since it entered the WTO in 2001.
For a long time, the fundamental cause of this growing trade chasm with China was Beijing’s deliberate currency undervaluation. Between 2000 and 2013, China invested more than $4 trillion—nearly 40 percent of its current GDP—in foreign currency assets, primarily U.S. Treasury securities.
And it paid off, since it drove down the value of the Chinese yuan relative to the U.S. dollar. This served as a massive subsidy for Chinese exports and a tax on U.S. products shipped to China.
How to think about the job-creation potential of green investments: A boost to labor demand that will create some jobs, shift some others—and increase job-quality overall
A key dividing line between competing proposals to address climate change is the role of publicly financed and directed investments.
A recent open letter about policies that should be enacted to slow climate change from a group of prominent economists mentioned only carbon pricing, and, at least implicitly argued against publicly financed and directed investments by asserting that a carbon tax “should …be revenue neutral to avoid debates over the size of government.”
Alternatively, the central organizing principle around the “Green New Deal”—both the congressional resolution as well as the looser collection of ideas associated with the phrase–is that pricing carbon alone is not enough, and that a substantial degree of public planning and investment will be necessary to stop catastrophic climate change.
Here at EPI, we are firmly of the view that a robust package of publicly financed and directed investments should be part of a large portfolio of policies (which includes carbon pricing) for stopping climate change. Not every impediment to undertaking green investments is rooted simply in the too-low price of carbon. Public investments offer a way to cut through the Gordian knot of incentives and inertia that would slow green investments even in the presence of carbon pricing.Read more
Why is teaching becoming a less appealing occupation? One answer is right in front of us
Proof that teaching is increasingly becoming a profession under siege is mounting.
Many of us have relatives or friends who were dismissed from their schools during the recession or kept their jobs but faced cuts in school funding and other challenges affecting their work lives. News reports are replete with stories of teachers who quit or who are thinking about quitting. And the most recent PDK poll of American’s views of public education found that more than half of the parents surveyed said they do not want their children to become public school teachers—the largest share since the question was introduced in 1969 and the first time a majority of parents answered this way.
The U.S Department of Education closes the school year with the publication of the Teacher Shortage Areas. Researchers point to a lack of available individuals to fill teaching positions as a factor in the teacher shortage, which we explore in a series of reports being released this spring and summer. The shortage is estimated to exceed 110,000 teachers missing in the current school year, according to our colleagues at the Learning Policy Institute.
Why is the role of educating our children becoming so unpopular?
The explanations people would provide for the declining popularity of teaching are many and may vary depending on the respondent and her or his connection to the profession. Still, it is pretty likely that low teacher pay would be a common response, either as a single cause or as an important feature in a constellation of causes that includes disrespect from policymakers, underfunding (which leaves teachers without the supports to handle their day-to-day needs), and disinvestment in the professional supports that help teachers adapt to changing conditions, continue their professional education, and collaborate with one another—key elements of any professional occupation. It’s likely that explanations from teachers themselves would emphasize both the lack of professional supports that reflect a lack of appreciation for teaching as a professional like any other profession and the pay penalty they live with.
Don’t be fooled by calls for a ‘regional’ minimum wage
Federal law is supposed to be the backstop that protects the vulnerable when lower levels of government fail to act. But a recent proposal to establish a regionally-adjusted federal minimum wage would undermine this principle, codifying disparities into federal law that in many cases are not the result of benign economic forces.
For one thing, it is impossible to separate the prevalence of low wages in the South from the persistent racial hierarchies there. Fortunately, the historical record shows that federal lawmakers do not need to accept this legacy. Establishing a federal $15 minimum wage in 2024, as over 200 Congressional Democrats have proposed, is economically achievable nationwide.
For decades, lawmakers—particularly in southern states—have refused to raise minimum wages and have prohibited cities and counties from doing so. The proposed regionally-adjusted federal minimum would simply accept this outcome, locking in these areas’ low-wage status, and leaving behind millions of workers—particularly workers of color—in the process. The Economic Policy Institute estimates 15.6 million fewer workers would get a raise under the regional proposal compared with a universal $15 minimum wage, and over 40 percent of these excluded workers are people of color.
It is true that states and sub-state areas have varying wage and price levels and there are times when policies should take those differences into account. The good news is regional wage differences are far smaller today than in past decades. This means implementing a more livable national minimum wage is easier now than for previous generations.
Doing so will generate a universal federal minimum wage that states and cities can exceed if needed, so that no worker fails to receive a livable wage and policy gradually shifts upward those at the bottom of the wage scale. A uniform federal minimum wage would help combat inequality across both racial and gender lines.Read more
The PRO Act: Giving workers more bargaining power on the job
Our economy is out of balance. Corporations and CEOs hold too much power and wealth, and working people know it. Workers are mobilizing, organizing, protesting, and striking at a level not seen in decades, and they are winning pay raises and other real change by using their collective voices.
But, the fact is, it is still too difficult for working people to form a union at their workplace when they want to. The law gives employers too much power and puts too many roadblocks in the way of workers trying to organize with their co-workers. That’s why the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—introduced today by Senator Murray and Representative Scott—is such an important piece of legislation.
The PRO Act addresses several major problems with the current law and tries to give working people a fair shot when they try to join together with their coworkers to form a union and bargain for better wages, benefits, and conditions at their workplaces. Here’s how:Read more
What to Watch on Jobs Day: An expected and continued return of workers into the labor force
Over the last several years, the economy has continued on a slow-but-steady march to full employment. Along with improvements in nominal wage growth, we’ve seen evidence that more and more sidelined workers continue to pour into the labor market, seeking work and getting jobs. This growing labor force participation rate (LFPR), which has beaten many experts’ more pessimistic projections, is the subject of this jobs day preview post.
Projections of labor force participation changed dramatically once the Great Recession hit and many experts quickly decided that cyclical drop-offs in participation were actually structural trends. Think of cyclical changes as being short term, driven by the aggregate demand shortfall that caused the Great Recession and its aftermath. Structural changes are due to long-run trends, such as the aging of the workforce or the retirement of baby boomers. In and immediately following the Great Recession, there was a steady and deep decline in labor force participation. Even after the unemployment rate began to recover after a sharp spike, the participation rate continued to decline. That relationship is clearest when you look at the prime-age population, as I’ve pointed out before, but is true when you look at overall labor force participation and unemployment as well.
The figure below shows the relationship between the unemployment rate and the labor force participation rate between 1989 and 2019. It’s clear that the labor force participation rate continued to decline even as the unemployment rate started to recover in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Remember that to be counted as unemployed, you must be actively looking for work in the four weeks prior. With so many would-be workers falling off the official count of the unemployed, because the weak economy meant they did not believe there were job opportunities for them, many analysts began to question whether they would ever return.
The labor force participation rate continued to decline long after the unemployment rate began recovering in the aftermath of the Great Recession: Labor force participation and unemployment rates, ages 16 and older, 1989–2019
|Labor Force Participation Rate||Unemployment Rate|
Source: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey public data series