The Good Jobs Deficit

Demonstration in Bentonville, Arkansas (OUR Walmart, Flickr)

The recent job actions and “Black Friday” protests at Walmart underscored the dismal wages and working conditions of many of the nation’s retail workers. Walmart hasn’t staked out some low-wage, no-benefit margin of the labor market: its labor and compensation practices are now the mainstream. For most of the last century, the worst employers in the United States—the tenement sweatshop, the company-town mine—were remnants of our past. Today, they are glimpses into our future.

Consider wages. While productivity grew about 80 percent between 1973 and 2011, the real hourly wages of the median worker barely budged—inching up only 4 percent over a generation. Slow wage growth reflects the slipping value of the minimum wage, the harshly uneven impact of globalization, and the steady erosion of union density and workers’ bargaining power. It also reflects the long shadow of deindustrialization, in which good jobs for those of modest educational attainment have been displaced by “Walmart” jobs.

Consider benefits. Public policy (Social Security and our patchwork health system) remains organized around the expectation of job-based pension and health coverage. But the share of workers offered such coverage, or able to afford their share of the costs when it is offered, continues to fall. A decade ago, about 70 percent of the under-sixty-five population had job-based health-care coverage. Today, that share sits at barely 58 percent. Again, some of this is driven by declining rates of coverage across the economy, but much of it is driven by job growth dominated by low-wage, no-benefit occupations.

The long view, looking back over the last generation, shows increased polarization in the labor market: job growth has been robust in a few high-skill, high-wage, managerial and technical fields, and in the low-skill, low-wage, service occupations. But the middle—decent jobs with decent benefits for those without college degrees—has evaporated. A shorter view, looking across the last business cycle, confirms the general trend. As the National Employment Law Project has ably documented (here and updated here), job losses during the recession were concentrated in mid-wage occupations, while job gains during the recovery have been concentrated at the low end.

This is not an artifact of a growing educational gap, in which workers with skills pull away from everyone else. Indeed, as researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research have shown (here, here, and here), today’s low-wage workers are older, more experienced, and better educated than ever. If you look closely at the jobs we have and the wages they pay, it is hard to see a way in which we educate our way out of this mess. The problem, as Adam Davidson and others have underscored, is not that workers lack the necessary skills; it is that skilled jobs don’t pay a living wage.

Where are we headed? The Bureau of Labor Statistics runs an ongoing employment projections program, with the current version (released last February) estimating occupational openings (from growth and replacements) for 2010-2020. I’ve summarized the results in the graphic below. Each dot represents an occupation. 2010 employment numbers run up the vertical axis; the projected openings for 2010-20 run along the horizontal access. The selection can be narrowed by the educational background needed for an entry-level job, or by the number of projected openings. The dots are colored according to the median annual wage for that occupation in 2010—red is lower than the economy-wide median wage of $33,800, green is higher. Move your mouse over the dot to see the occupation and its details.

The future, in a nutshell, is not bright. Only about a fifth of the projected openings even require a bachelor’s degree, and very nearly half require no more than a high-school diploma. About three-quarters of all projected openings pay less than the 2010 median wage. Fully one-third of projected job openings are in low-wage service occupations. Indeed, if you narrow the range (using the “openings” slider) to those jobs with 650,000 or more projected openings through 2020, you are left with twelve occupations—eleven of which pay sub-median wages, nine of which pay less than $25,000, and five of which pay less than $20,000. Welcome to Walmart.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.