Opinion

The Great Debate

The retail price of America’s income inequality

Retail is considered one of the bright spots in the American economy, one of only six job categories projected to grow nationally through 2018. But a survey released this week makes clear that many of these are jobs in name only, offering poverty-level wages, highly restricted access to benefits, part-time work when full-time is desired, and a workforce so cowed that it routinely accepts working conditions that make work-life balance, or the chance to upgrade skills and move into better-paid work elsewhere, all but impossible.

The survey, conducted by Retail Action Project, a New York City-based workers’ advocacy group, offers frank data from 436 workers in 230 stores across the city’s five boroughs, from the luxury purveyors of Fifth Avenue to discount outlets in the Bronx. With 242,000 retail workers in Manhattan alone, the data – the first ever gathered directly from these workers – offers a telling and sobering look at this important industry.

The report’s highlights:

    The median wage in New York is $9.50 an hour, 52 percent lower than the citywide average for all industries. If associates in one of the nation’s costliest cities can’t even earn a living wage, who can? Black and Latino workers surveyed are more likely to be hired part-time and given worse schedules than their coworkers. Based on average wages and hours worked per week, white workers’ income is 12 percent higher than that of their black colleagues. Just over half of workers surveyed earn less than $10 an hour. But more than three-quarters of female Latino workers – 77 percent – fall beneath that threshold. While 54 percent of white workers received a raise or promotion after six months on the job, only 39 percent of black workers and 28 percent of Latino workers did.

The irony of retail work for many of these employees is that they can’t afford to buy much of what they’re selling. When I worked as an associate for 27 months at The North Face, a $30 hat, even with an employee discount, cost more than an hour of my labor.

The income of the median American family, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than in 1998. Gas, food and other costs have risen significantly, yet many workers’ wages are falling behind. The American economy still relies on consumer spending – 70 percent – yet fewer and fewer hardworking Americans can keep up.

But if you don’t earn it, you can’t spend it.

One growing and significant industry trend is retail employers’ unwillingness to set associates’ schedules more than a week in advance. Only 17 percent of those surveyed have a set schedule, allowing them the flexibility necessary to meet other obligations or acquire further education. Almost half of the workers said their manager changes their shift without their consent.

Mr. 1 Percent versus Mr. 1 Percent

Listening to a newly populist President Obama or to Mitt Romney, who touts his CEO past at every turn, it is tempting to imagine a 2012 election that unfolds as textbooks imagine, with Republicans speaking for business and Democrats standing up for the little guy. Don’t be fooled. A more accurate reading of the contest features two elite candidates who represent different wings of the 1 Percent – a group increasingly divided over economics and the role of government.

Look closely at Obama’s rhetoric and you see that he’s not channeling Occupy Wall Street as much as a pragmatic tax-and-invest liberalism. Obama speaks for highly educated, affluent Americans who want government to do more, not less, on a number of fronts – like education, infrastructure, scientific research and clean energy. These folks don’t envy Europe; they envy China, which is deploying a muscular statism to compete economically and dominate the future.

Yes, Obama has made some strong statements lately about inequality and raising taxes on rich people. But most of this goes over just fine in Malibu or Manhattan. Many of the rich are ready to pay higher taxes – with polls showing, for instance, that a majority of millionaires support the Buffett Tax. And many agree that inequality has gone too far, seeing the growing wealth divide as a threat to America’s economic dynamism and social cohesion. The things that liberal rich people don’t like – unions, protectionism, and regulation, etc. – Obama doesn’t like much either.

A shrinking middle class means a shrinking economy

The following is an excerpt from a speech Alan Krueger, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, gave at the Center for American Progress on Thursday. The full text is available here.

Although I have done much research on inequality, I used to have an aversion to using the term. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal ran an article in the mid-1990s that noted that I prefer to use the term “dispersion.” But the rise in income dispersion – along so many dimensions – has gotten to be so high, that I now think that inequality is a more appropriate term.

President Obama summarized the rise of inequality very succinctly in his Osawatomie, Kansas speech, when he said, “over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.”

from David Rohde:

In Milwaukee, an evaporating middle class

MILWAUKEE -- As Washington and Madison fiddle, this city’s middle class is in slow free fall.

First, the numbers. From 1970 to 2007, the percentage of families in the Milwaukee metropolitan area that were middle class declined from 37 to 24 percent, according to a new analysis by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.


(Click on the photo above for a slideshow) During the same period, the proportion of affluent families grew from 22 to 27 percent--while the percentage of poor households swelled from 23 to 31 percent. In short, Milwaukee's middle class families went from a plurality to its smallest minority. 

The politics of America’s wealth chasm

By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own.

Economic inequality – the meta concern of the Wall Street protesters – is not an issue that typically gets much traction in American politics. Anger at the Haves tends to surge when times are tough, only to melt away when former Have Nots are again flush enough to go back to the mall.

A year ago, with the economy improving, it seemed the U.S. was well along in this cycle. The wrath against Wall Street had died down, replaced by a more familiar conservative politics blaming “big government” for America’s ills.

Suddenly, though, the rich are once more under attack, with protesters even marching this week on the swanky Upper East Side digs of JP Morgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon. What happened?

  •