The middle class is the great engine of the American economy, but that engine is sputtering. Today, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the AFL-CIO and more than a dozen other worker advocate and economic research organizations are proposing “10 Ways to Rebuild the Middle Class for Hard Working Americans: Making Work Pay in the 21st Century.”
The guiding principles of the road map to rebuilding the middle class are values we all share: that work lies at the center of a robust and sustainable economy; that all work has dignity; and that through work, all of us should be able to support our families, educate our children and enjoy our retirement.
The report does not focus on the urgent need to end our jobs crisis, but it does point to the recent report by professor Jacob Hacker and Nate Loewentheil, founder of the Roosevelt Institute, “Prosperity Economics: Building an Economy for All,” which sets out a comprehensive agenda to create good jobs. We cannot rebuild the middle class without putting America back to work.
As too many Americans cannot find work at all, too many workers are toiling in jobs that don’t pay enough to support families. Meanwhile, the jobs that will grow the most in the next decade are expected to be low-wage and stripped of benefits. Says NELP Executive Director Chris Owens:
For a lot of Americans, simply having a job no longer means you’ll be able to support a family or pay for your basic needs. We have a low-wage recovery and most new jobs in the next decade are expected to follow the same path. If we are going to rebuild the middle class and restore national prosperity, we need to make today’s jobs better and tomorrow’s jobs good.
Here’s a quick overview of the 10 steps:
1. Make every job a good job. Today, the majority of the high-growth jobs in america—retail sales, home health and personal aides, food prep workers and the like—pay very low wages and provide little chance of promotion. We will not build the strong middle class we need to power the economy forward in the 21st century unless we make sure that today’s jobs and tomorrow’s jobs provide good wages and benefits.
2. Fix the minimum wage. Restoring the lost value of the minimum wage, indexing it to inflation and raising the tipped-worker wage will increase take-home pay for 28 million hardworking Americans and boost consumer spending and job creation in communities across the United States.
3. Save good public and private jobs. Public employment has been a pathway to the middle class for millions of workers, but today, public employees are being laid off in record numbers or having their jobs privatized to low-wage firms. And big corporations are outsourcing good jobs from the United States to other countries around the world. We need to stop cuts and privatization of good public jobs. and we must stop rewarding corporations for shipping jobs overseas.
4. Ensure health and retirement security.
Continue to implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which will provide financial incentives for businesses to contribute to health coverage and sliding-scale tax credits for workers who do not get coverage at work. Add a public option to further control costs.
Ensure states implement the option under the ACA to expand Medicaid to cover workers who earn less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level—$31,000 for a family of four.
Protect Medicare benefits by controlling costs through incentives to increase quality and enforceable budgets.
Do not cut Medicare benefits or replace its guarantee of benefits with a voucher for private insurance.
Ensure all workers have a secure retirement plan.
Strengthen Social Security by eliminating the cap on earnings subject to tax. Improve benefits for low-income earners, the elderly and college-bound survivors. Do not cut benefits or privatize the Social Security program.
5. Uphold the freedom to join a union. Unions are key to creating good jobs, and not just for union workers. But outdated laws and corporate-driven policies have severely weakened the ability of workers to freely join a union and collectively bargain. The decimation of unions is a big reason why wages and benefits are down and our economy is sputtering. Our public policy should uphold the freedom for all workers to stick together and choose to be represented by unions.
6. Make the modern workplace pro-family. The rules of the workplace have not kept up with the changes in the workforce. Managing work-family conflict is toughest on the lowest-wage workers, who have the least access to paid leave. Earned sick days and affordable family leave are indispensible to today’s workforce, our communities and economy.
7. Stop the wage theft. We all should get paid for the work we do, but the reality is that wage theft is all too common, particularly for low-wage workers, in wide variety of jobs. We must strengthen and enforce the laws to stop employers from stealing wages as many currently do by: paying workers less than the minimum wage; not paying for overtime; and sometimes not paying workers at all.
8. Require that your boss be your employer. Stop employers from escaping responsibility for paying their workers decent wages and benefits by stopping the use of hiring permanent temp workers and the misclassifying of employees as independent contractors and by directing public dollars to employers who hire worker directly.
9. Give unemployed job-seekers a real, fresh start. It is tough enough to be out of work, without having to face discrimination because you are unemployed and the fear that you will lose your unemployment insurance before finding a job. We should stop hiring discrimination against unemployed job seekers and, instead, help them get good jobs and keep them solvent while they are looking for one.
10. Toughen laws protecting worker safety and health. With millions of workplace injuries and illnesses each year, the law must be strengthened to punish employers who create unsafe work conditions and retaliate against workers who speak up. In addition, injured and ill workers need a stronger social insurance program that is transparent and unbiased and ensures immediate access to health care for workers and adequate compensation for lost wages.
Rebuilding the great American middle class in the 21st century will once again require deliberate action by working people, through our government and by businesses that understand that our mutual long-term prosperity depends on treating workers everywhere with dignity and giving them the means to a decent standard of living. It will mean taking a U-turn from the policies of the past 30 years, which have squeezed workers in the pursuit of short-term profits, slowly hollowing out the middle class on which our long-term prosperity is built.