Manufacturing Isn’t Coming Back. Let’s Improve These Jobs InsteadRoundup
tags: labor, health care, Economic Policy
Gabriel Winant is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America.
In Congress and the White House, policymakers are developing a bill that is expected to pour trillions into updating American transit, energy and utility systems. Repairs are certainly necessary, and it’s impossible to overstate the urgency of such a program in terms of the transition to a more sustainable economy.
But the White House is also arguing for the bill in terms of its effect on the labor market — creating “the kinds of jobs we need,” as the chief of staff, Ron Klain, puts it. Are these — construction and industrial jobs — the main kinds of good jobs we can hope for?
While there are many projects that require blue-collar work, there’s little reason to treat such employment as an end in itself. In the long view, it seems not to be a category of labor for which our economy generates consistent demand. Yet there are other kinds of jobs that we do seem to require, but reward with low pay and dangerous working conditions.
As Rachel Dwyer, a sociologist at the Ohio State University, has shown, the “care economy” — jobs tending to young, old, disabled and sick people, along with housekeeping, food service and domestic work — is the locus of significant employment growth. This sector generated 56 percent of growth in low-wage jobs in the 1980s, 63 percent in the 1990s, and 74 percent in the 2000s. Such workers, of course, have borne the worst of the pandemic’s dangers.
The problem with care work isn’t the lack of hard hats. The problem, rather, is that such employment is generally unregulated and nonunion, and paid for by the government (often through complex federal-state combinations) while administered by for-profit companies. Although these jobs serve a vital social need, these private employers have huge incentives to limit labor costs.
As a recent working paper showed, private equity ownership of nursing homes has reduced staffing levels, which contributed to greatly increased mortality. Low wages in this industry helped drive the spread of the coronavirus as workers forced to hold more than one job became inadvertent vectors.
The care economy is the product of public policy, particularly Medicare and Medicaid. In 2019, these programs together accounted for 37 percent of our gigantic $3.8 trillion in spending on health care — a kind of unrecognized infrastructure bill that we pass automatically every year. The federal government could use that leverage to transform labor markets and improve care alike.
To make the best of this situation, it helps to recognize how it came about. As industrial employment contracted, it left behind populations that were poorer, sicker and older.
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