Unemployment is down. Why are Americans worried about work?
Job insecurity persists even as U.S. unemployment rates hit new lows.
For just about any modern industrial society, a 4.3 percent unemployment rate would be something to celebrate. That’s the level the United States hit in May, a 16-year low and continuing what has proved a historic run in job growth. The United States reached the enviable economic state of full employment. Full employment in the United States occurs at a base unemployment rate of 5.0 to 5.2 percent.
The long, slow recovery beginning in 2009 from the deep recession of 2008—when base unemployment reached as high as 10 percent—has now surpassed that Federal Reserve full employment target of about 5 percent. Just about the only people who don’t have work are seasonal employees in agricultural or retail sectors, job jumpers seeking better opportunities, or the newly laid off in industries teetering on obsolescence.
But if the economy is doing so great, why do so many U.S. workers feel so down? Theoretically, low unemployment should be pushing wages up as employers compete for fewer job candidates. Wage growth has been limited to only 2.3 percent, just slightly ahead of inflation. Bigger forces—automation and competition from overseas labor—are part of the reason, and worker participation remains low at about 62 percent, meaning many who could work have become too discouraged by the poor options they would have to accept.
It is not hard to understand why workers may not exactly be feeling flush in a postrecovery economy characterized by the continuing decline of unions, the ascendancy of the benefit-free gig economy, corporate wage theft, and scheduling shenanigans that create volatile monthly wages and long-term insecurity. Millions of American working-class households, are just one unanticipated monthly expense away from a financial crisis that can set them back for a year or more.
The value of full employment as a target of social policy has been contested in American life. Some insist that policies that push toward full employment are not only economically desirable, they are the moral minimums of a just society. Others argue it is best for the government to refrain from efforts to guide business cycles and that a level of unemployment should be tolerated as a bridgework against inflation. The church’s position is pretty straightforward on the issue. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “[W]ork is a good belonging to all people. . . . ‘Full employment’ . . . remains a mandatory objective for every economic system oriented towards justice and the common good.”
The church frequently has contemplated the meaning of work and the security and dignity it imparts. Its social teaching on labor is surprisingly specific on notions of just remuneration and the responsibilities of society and the state for protecting workers from the “nightmare of unemployment.”
The church has long endorsed transitional aid to the unemployed, retraining workers in changing industries, and even a family wage, sufficient for one working spouse to provide the necessities of life and savings while another does the hard, loving labor in the home.
These are direct moral and practical demands on state and society that have to be taken seriously, especially as old economic paradigms collapse before new technologies and changing social and economic circumstances. Full employment should inaugurate a period of public rejoicing, but as America turns the tide on unemployment this time, a period of national self-examination might be more appropriate.
American families still struggle to put food on the table, pay for health care or education, and retain some hope to get ahead. The rewards of this robust economy are not being distributed equitably. Leaders in government and the business community should be asking what more is required to keep Americans in meaningful, gainful employment, the keystone to a society that has its eyes set on the common good.
This article also appears in the August 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 8, page 42).
Image: Flickr cc via Kate Hiscock