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Who’s Really To Blame for Unemployment?

4:54 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Though some protesters at an ‘Unemployment Olympics’ event in Tompkins Square Park, N.Y. blamed joblessness on ‘the boss,’ a new report suggests that the economic climate is more at fault. (Clementine Gallot / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Guided by the mythology of the “American dream”—the idea that, given the opportunity, the deserving will excel and rise above their peers—politicians often attribute unemployment to a mystical “skills gap.” If people can’t find a job, the logic goes, they clearly weren’t fit to be hired. As a consequence, many legislators tout specialized training programs or education reforms as possible solutions to America’s seemingly intractable jobs crisis. But a new study shows that blaming the “skills gap” for unemployment makes about as much sense as blaming a mass famine on “excess hunger.”

A recent analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute shows that elevated unemployment is due to a general lack of demand in the job market, fueled by overarching economic decline. In other words, this is not a problem that can merely be addressed by retraining workers or revamping the education system.

In the report, economist Heidi Shierholz outlines this economic imbalance by comparing unemployment at different levels of education. Her results reveal that workers are suffering across the board:

Workers with a college degree or more still have unemployment rates that are more than one-and-a-half times as high as they were before the recession began. In other words, demand for workers at all levels of education is significantly weaker now than it was before the recession started. There is no evidence of workers at any level of education facing tight labor markets relative to 2007.

Moreover, the report continues, there are no specific job sectors that appear to be especially “tight.” So it’s not that the economy especially favors, for example, radiologists or software engineers; bosses seem to be shutting the door on workers of all sorts:

Read the rest of this entry →

Capitalists for a Higher Minimum Wage

5:53 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Wisconsin Jobs Now (flickr)

Originally published at In These Times

A Silicon Valley multimillionaire and conservative pundit wants to give his state’s poorest workers a raise. Huh?

Entrepreneur Ron Unz, known for his reactionary views on immigration (along with controversial commentary on race, crimeIQ and social policy), is campaigning for a state ballot measure to lift California’s minimum wage to $12—well above the $10 minimum currently set to take effect in 2016 (and a giant step above the federal wage floor of $7.25).

Some progressives might be puzzled that Unz, who in the late 1990s famously pushed a ballot measure to scrap bilingual education programs in California, has taken on this populist fight, albeit with an odd neo-Fordist air.

Of course, the Right’s resistance to this has never been realistic; empirical research shows that lifting the federal minimum wage could boost earnings for a third of the country’s workforce and drive broad economic growth. The opposition is mostly ideological, based on overblown charges that high labor costs will harm employers, along with the business community’s general antipathy toward state regulation of wages.

But some conservatives, including Unz and pundits Phyllis Schlafly and Bill O’Reilly, have come around to seeing a minimum-wage hike as an anti-poverty measure that’s good for capitalism—and perhaps more importantly, a market-based alternative to government welfare. Unz’s initiative still contains kernels of his anti-immigration leanings, though not as explicitly as his earlier ballot initiative. He believes that increased wages for American workers would help those who are legally authorized to work while, over time, squeezing out workers who are not. Read the rest of this entry →

Advice for Young Women: Get a Union Job

11:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

Back in the days before modern feminism, a young woman looking for work might typically be advised, politely, to “learn a trade,” with the implication that she wasn’t bound for college or an elite career, but a humbler job as, say, a secretary or seamstress. Such a phrase might sound condescending today. Yet working in a trade might still be sound career goal for a woman, if she gets the right kind of job—in a union.

According to a new paper on women and unionization by progressive think tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), “Even after controlling for factors such as age, race, industry, educational attainment and state of residence, the data show a substantial boost in pay and benefits for female workers in unions relative to their non-union counterparts. The effect is particularly strong for women with lower levels of formal education.”

In other words, all other things being equal, unions are good for working women, yielding higher wages and better job benefits. Specifically, “unionized women workers on average make 12.9 percent more than their non-union counterparts, are 36.8 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 53.4 percent more likely to have participated in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.”

Of course, unions are good for men, too. Across the unionized workforce—which includes higher-paying, male-dominated sectors like construction—men actually see a bigger wage boost from union membership than women do. But for women, who still face a gendered pay gap, the gains that unions provide can be critical. CEPR notes, “All else equal, being in a union raises a woman’s pay as much as a full year of college does.”

The study concludes, “Considering the great boost to pay and benefits that unions bring, it’s important that anyone who cares about the well-being of women workers also care about unions.”

Even though it materially enhances many aspects of their working lives, the value of union membership for women tends to get overlooked. Media narratives and neoliberal feminist advice tracts like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In tend to stress higher education, networking and climbing the corporate ladder as ways for women to get ahead. But the report’s findings suggest that “good union work”—an idea that’s culturally more associated with rough-hewn longshoremen than single moms—may be an overlooked path to social advancement for women. Read the rest of this entry →

New York City Immigrants Test a New Economic ‘Bridge’

8:04 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Lady Liberty welcomes immigrants to New York City, but in reality it’s hard for skilled workers to get their foot in the door. (Sgt. Randall. A. Clinton / Flickr )

Originally published at In These Times

For all the supposed potential of the “American Dream,” immigrants in New York City often have a terrible time redeeming its promise. Many arrive in the United States with no financial grounding or burdened by a heap of debt; others can spend years priced out of financial credit by poverty and discrimination. Now, however, the city is allocating a little seed capital toward the long-overlooked economic potential of poor immigrant communities.

The Immigrant Bridge program of the city’s Economic Development Corporation is a pilot initiative that aims to invest in the future careers of struggling, underemployed immigrant workers who came equipped with credentials earned in their home countries but have been unable to get their foot in the professional door of the city’s labor market. A core component of the program is a special loan fund for immigrants with a college background, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, borrowed on five-year terms, which can be used to cover any expense, including the cost of necessary licensing exams, training classes, or basic life expenses like transportation costs. In addition to the loan fund, which will be administered by Amalgamated Bank, selected program participants would engage in career development programs to place them into jobs that suit their aptitudes.

Though Amalgamated obviously has a commercial interest in the program, the union-owned bank has built up street cred as a proletarian-friendly institution, with historical ties to the immigrant labor movement. “There’s a lot of unutilized human capital here in immigrant communities… and we want them to be reaching their full potential,” says Andrew Weltman, Amalgamated’s first Vice President for Strategic Development.

The 400 participants who will ultimately be selected to participate in Immigrant Bridge reflect just a sliver of a systemic gap in the city’s economic landscape, though. Many well-educated immigrants face structural obstacles when seeking to break into a professional field, even one in which they were successful before migrating. (Nationwide data on metropolitan areas hows that the majority of immigrants hold “middle skill” or “high skill” qualifications.)

According to the New York-based think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrant New Yorkers hold considerable economic clout, making up “84 percent of small grocery store owners, 69 percent of restaurant owners, and 63 percent of clothing store owners.” But even if they are technically business owners, the work can be rough and the pay low, whether you’re running a daycare business in your home or driving a cab every night. Read the rest of this entry →

That Unemployment Form Might Violate Your Civil Rights

1:40 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

If you think being jobless is tough, try applying for unemployment benefits. In Florida, simply filling out the form requires considerable talent and endurance. According to a recent ruling by the federal Department of Labor, the state’s new online application process is so fraught with arbitrary obstacles that it violates federal civil rights protections.

An initial determination by the Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center, announced last week, concluded that Florida’s recently implemented web-based unemployment benefits system effectively deterred people from completing the claims process because it was needlessly burdensome and complex. The CRC’s investigation found that the state failed to provide adequate services or alternative application procedures to applicants who face special barriers, particularly people with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency.

The new process for filing for unemployment benefits, first rolled out in 2011 as part of a “modernization” program, has introduced daunting new hoops for applicants. The main quagmire is a “skills assessment” that can take as long as 45 minutes. Activists point out that forcing someone answer a long questionnaire about their job skills and abilities, simply to qualify for benefits, seems a conveniently backhanded way to arbitrarily exclude applicants.

Although advocates criticize the system as a whole as unnecessarily burdensome, the CRC complaint, brought by the Miami Workers Center, focuses on people protected by the anti-discrimination protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Though the initial determination is not a final ruling, CRC’s investigation has found that the state has failed to meet federal standards for ensuring equal access. So the system actually reproduced the same social barriers that made it hard for these vulnerable groups to climb out of unemployment. That is, immigrants with limited language ability, who are often relegated to the worst-paid, least stable jobs, and people with disabilities, who suffer extraordinarily high unemployment rates, may have been arbitrarily denied the meager benefits payments that might be their main financial fallback as they struggle to find work.

The supposed purpose of the state’s online skills assessment is to better assess the needs of the applicant. But that information is extracted at a high price. As a prerequisite for qualifying for unemployment payments, the CRC concludes, the skills review “tends to screen out persons with disabilities from fully and equally enjoying the benefits of [Florida’s unemployment compensation] program.”

Spending nearly an hour fumbling with a web application would be frustrating for anyone. But if you’re poor, jobless and have to rely on a local library for Internet access, or suffer from a repetitive stress injury that makes typing unbearable, or have trouble reading English, it may be virtually impossible to surmount the state’s bureaucratic firewall. Under the previous, simpler application system, applicants could file by phone or fill out a paper form. According to National Employment Law Project (NELP), phone applications previously accounted for some 40 percent of filings.

George Wentworth, an attorney with NELP—which has worked with Florida Legal Services to petition the Labor Department about flaws in Florida’s application process—says that eligibility for unemployment should be based on three simple things: a workers’ unemployed status, whether she’s actively seeking work and whether she’s worked enough in the past to meet the basic requirements. “That should be all that’s necessary to get in the front door of the system,” Wentworth says, “and what Florida has done is to erect a wall, rather than a door.”

According to the CRC’s initial findings, despite federal civil rights laws that entitle protected groups to alternative accommodations, the state has failed to provide needed services. NELP’s analysis of the ruling outlined several examples of discriminatory barriers:

Read the rest of this entry →

A New Door for Guestworkers?

5:08 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally posted at In These Times

The perennial impasse in the immigration debate between labor and business seems to be fading as a group of senators, working with industry and union lobbies, irons out a framework that would bring more migrants into the labor force, purportedly under a system that extends rights and protections for so-called “guestworkers.” But what the new system really means for workers depends on how it is implemented and regulated, and who is controlling the gates.

The proposed W-visa plan reportedly strikes a compromise between business’s desire for low-cost labor and union concerns (represented by the AFL-CIO in Washington) about maintaining jobs for U.S. workers and enforcing wage-and-hour laws. Aimed at less-skilled sectors like restaurant work, the W-visa would differ from previous employment-based visas in two key ways. For one, it would offer immigrants a way to petition for residency and eventually attain citizenship. And unlike much maligned temporary-worker programs, the visa would be “portable,” meaning it would not be tied to a specific workplace or employer. In theory, that would allow a worker to switch jobs without jeopardizing her legal status.

Addressing fears of creating a “second tier,” or minimally regulated low-wage workforce, the compromise reportedly ensures that employers pay no less than the industry’s standard “prevailing wage,” determined according to labor market conditions. The New York Times reports:

Labor groups wanted to ensure that guest workers would not be paid less than the median wage in their respective industries, and the two sides compromised by agreeing that guest workers would be paid the higher of the prevailing industry wage as determined by the Labor Department or the actual employer wage.

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How ‘This American Life’ Got Disability Wrong

3:44 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Also see Tom Thumb’s post

NPR, This American Life

dramatic investigation aired this week by This American Life raised concerns about federal disability insurance with its portrayal of the system as dysfunctional, financially unsustainable and ballooning out of control.

But experts say the program omitted key evidence that the doubling of workers on disability insurance since 1995 has been driven by genuine need.

In the show, featured on National Public Radio, This American Life reporter Chana Joffe-Walt explores a poor Alabama town where 1 in 4 people live on disability insurance. The interviews with working-class beneficiaries depict them as victims of a culture of dependency, convinced that there’s no real job they could do, and prey to vulture-like lawyers. One attorney, who helps people appeal disability insurance rejections, boasts, “I’ve created some of the problems for the government because so many people appeal.” Joffe-Walt raises hand-wringing questions, “Who is making the case for the other side? Who is defending the government’s decision to deny disability?”
In fact, the government has staunch defenders of its right to deny disability benefits: pro-market conservative commentators. They argue that while other federal assistance programs have severely tightened since the neoliberal “welfare reform” of the 1990s, disability (which was expanded after its 1956 enactment to include more age groups) has become a de facto welfare system plagued with “misaligned incentives” that could lead to insolvency. Some conservatives use this narrative to make the case for privatizing disability insurance, in tandem with the push to privatize Social Security.
But according to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the driver of growth in disability beneficiaries isn’t “misaligned incentives” or, as the show suggests, people taking advantage of an over-generous system. It’s simply more people.

Looking for a Good Job? Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

4:51 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

CEPR / In These Times

 

Originally posted at In These Times

 

If you think your job stinks, you’re not alone. And if you’re still looking for a decent job, don’t expect to find one anytime soon, or ever.

A new analysis of job quality, assessing various measures of benefits and wages, confirms what many of us already suspected: Good jobs are vanishing from the United States, with global trade and social disinvestment leaving workers stranded on a barren economic landscape.

The report, published by John Schmitt and Janelle Jones from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), shows that the downward spiral began long before the recent economic crisis. It notes that since 1979, the “good job” (one that “pays at least $18.50 an hour, has employer provided health insurance, and some kind of retirement plan”) has become an endangered species:

[T]he economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. The data show only minor differences between 2007, before the Great Recession began, and 2010, the low point for the labor market.

In 2010, “less than one-fourth (24.6 percent) of the workforce” possessed those precious good jobs. And the clincher is this downturn is beginning to look like a sad plateau:

The deterioration in the economy’s ability to generate good jobs reflects long-run changes in the U.S. economy, not short-run factors related to the recession or recent economic policy.

While workers around the world have witnessed massive economic volatility in the recent boom-bust cycles, food crises and political upheavals, the trend line of labor hardship holds steady. The societal impacts of unemployment crises parallel the effect of long-term effects on individual workers, especially young ones–a self-perpetuating sense of despair and isolation, and perhaps entrenched, long-term suffering. Read the rest of this entry →

Freeing the University: Education Occupation on May Day

2:47 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Rand School (Wikimedia)

Cross-posted from In These Times

Pop quiz: what’s the value of an American education? To some, it’s a booming industry that preys on debt-crippled students. But to the educators, youth and workers who keep the system running, school increasingly seems like it’s just not worth the struggle. This May Day, masses of working people–and students who are working to build a future for themselves–are converging in New York City to rethink education and test those ideas in the real world.

Everyone understands that merit and hard work should pay off somehow in the economy. But the narrowing and commercialization of education at every level, from preschool to postdoc, has drained people’s academic aspirations and bank accounts.

On May 1, following the massive 1T Day rally against the “student debt bubble,” the Free University of New York City will bring together various Occupy-inspired grassroots education experiments. Combined with other May Day-related Occupy demonstrations, the program of workshops and talks aims to put theories of “horizontal pedagogy” into practice by inviting regular folks to learn about and question the systems surrounding them: the economy, politics, and school itself.

The planned program, centered in Madison Square Park, will include:

over forty workshops, classes, and collective experiences during the five hour educational experiment. Attendees will be introduced to movements such as Take Back the Land, which has been occupying foreclosed housing; radical student organizing within the City University of New York (CUNY); and indigenous environmentalism. Other workshops focus on creating new ways of living, from permaculture to open access academic publishing, from nonviolent communication to immigration relief for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

It’s kind of an anti-university, seeking to break down the bureaucratic fortress of credits and degrees. The focus is on empowering both students and teachers, through educational work doesn’t test book-smarts but expands critical thought and challenges expectations.

The Free University, together with parallel initiatives like Occupy University, Occupy CUNY (City University of New York) and Occupy Student Debt campaign, aim to democratize education in the tradition of old school union education programs and the pioneering RAND School of Social Science. The idea is to see workers as students, teachers as workers, and education as a public trust. Read the rest of this entry →

Depression Symptoms: What’s Behind Europe’s Spike in Suicides

1:51 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Suicide rates in US (CDC, via earlywarn.blogspot.com)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The metaphor of suicide has been used to depict the downward spiral surrounding countries bludgeoned by the economic crisis—particularly U.S. and Eurozone communities plagued by epidemic joblessness and a rash of budget cuts. Now the term literally describes the psychological dimension of the crisis, according to studies on suicide rates.

Some symptoms of the social despair have been grimly spectacular. Greece was jolted one recent morning after aging pensioner Dimitris Christoulas put a pistol to his head in Athens’s main square. In 2010 Americans were shaken by the suicide-by-plane of Andrew Stack, whose anger at the political establishment propelled him into an Austin office complex. Poorer regions have flared with public self-immolations, particularly in the communities of the “Arab Spring” where many youth come to see life as a dead-end street. Underlying these more dramatic examples are statistical patterns that reflect society’s unraveling.

A recently published Lancet study showed spikes in suicide across Europe during the recession. While many factors could contribute to this pattern, researchers found a significant correlation between unemployment and suicide trends. Read the rest of this entry →