Family Values and the Workforce Participation Rate
This morning, I read about Jeb Bush and his recent comment that, “workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows.” So in order for us to achieve his demand that we grow the economy by 4% annually, “people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families.”
Family values are the crown jewel of Republican rhetoric. So let’s dissect this for a trace of family values. Because I think that actually, Jeb Bush, according to his statement above, is bankrupt of family values, while a surplus of financial values pour out of his callous heart.
Workforce participation is basically the number of Americans currently employed versus the number who are eligible for work. If I am available, of age, healthy, willing or not willing to work, then I am one of hundreds of millions of Americans counted in the workforce. If I am working, I am participating. So the participation rate is the number of folks in the workforce who are currently working. Jeb Bush is absolutely right that in contemporary terms, the rate is low.
Old timers remember 1955 as a glorious year of economic abundance. The middle-class was bolstered by domestic manufacturing, rising wages, and relatively low wealth disparity. Back then, a CEO would have only earned 10 times the amount of his secretary. Today, that figure can be more than 100 times that of his secretary. A 90% tax rate on millionaires and massive corporations made it necessary to redistribute income down — the high tax rate had a trickle down effect. Reagan’s claim of low taxation doing the same has proven to be unfounded.
In 1955, the workforce participation rate was 58%. It hung around there for ten years, all the way through the passing of the Civll Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. From 1966 to 1996, that rate climbed by ten points, peaking at 68%. Today, that rate is 62.5% and falling. I say, let it fall back to 1955 levels.
So long as women have to work to support their family, America is failing to produce a society with family values.
Wages stagnated during this generation, from 1966-1996. I fail to see a coincidence that as soon as black men and white women were given the opportunity to work in the same offices as white men, wages stagnated, and women were forced into work, to pay for increasing food and housing costs. Aside from accusing white, racist, and sexist economists, bankers, executives, politicians, and others of secretly plotting this awful trend, saying, “alright if you want equal rights, you’re going to have fucking work for it,” I have to assert simply that real wages (the value of wages against the cost of living) stagnated for thirty years “coincidentally” after women and black men were finally included in mainstream society, and that this fact cannot be contested, even if we can’t prove it was fascist white men who sabotaged the economic-social order.
Jeb Bush blames Obama for a slow economic recovery. He is unfounded, not because Obama is the rainmaker, but because Obama can’t fix the problem so easily. Many of his economic policies have been beneficial, but for the whole thing to drive home, employers have to step up, in a patriotic 1950’s sort of way, giving bonuses and raises to hard workers, not layoffs and “disruption” tactics in the workplace. If not employers, then Congress must enact legislation to ensure fair wages. In fact, real wages have decreased since Obama took office. He advocated for two pieces of legislation that would have resolved the problem.
In 2009, he raised the minimum wage, from $5.15 to $7.25. That helped, briefly, but then the cost of living soared. In 2013, he called out another minimum wage increase, from $7.25 to $10.10, with a fix to inflation, so that the minimum wage cannot become a political football anymore, it merely adjusts to economic growth. A republican Congress has continuously blocked the passage of that one. When there are Walmart supervisors making $10.10 hourly, then they will demand a raise to $15.00, because suddenly their crew is making the same wage. So you would see a universal increase in wages. The purchasing power of 90% of all Americans would go up, driving the economy and its productivity forward.
The second major thing is fair pay for women. Legislation that would root out discriminatory practices and give hundreds of thousands of women a raise would also have the effect of boosting household income, purchasing power, and would enable men and same-sex spouses to stay at home to raise their kids, if that’s what is best for the children.
Family values should be about what is best for children. It is common sense that a positive household where parents are not distracted by financial woes and work worries is best for children. Child care policy is a button topic in the 2016 campaign, and yes it is a must, but it should not replace child care from the parents. Workforce participation should fall as wages climb.
In 1955, one man could support his household — he had to. Women did not enjoy opportunities however, so a woman had to stay home if her husband wanted that. Now, everyone should have the choice. With fair wages to women, a woman could choose to go back to work shortly after childbirth and leave child-rearing to Dad. Or, same-sex households, same deal, one member of the household works, the other stays home. So long as women have to work to support their family, America is failing to produce a society with family values.
Jeb Bush wants everyone to drive that workforce participation rate up, despite every signal, both socially and economically, that it can’t happen. Technology is replacing jobs and it is time to embrace that by returning to the one-worker household model, regardless of gender, race or class, someone needs to provide care and love for their child. If Jeb Bush thinks fragmenting the family is good, then he simply ignores the damage done to his own generation.
As Democrats talk about “working families” I begin to worry they mean that literally. I think they want little Timmy, at age 16, to go out and work, to support the household, to save for his college fund, while government funding raises him through some child care program, paid for by a slight tax increase on the wealthy. In this area, we need truly conservative family values, the kind that Eisenhower would have espoused for white men, but this time for all Americans.