While Wall Street aims for another record-breaking week, we would like to remind economic forecasters of the harsh reality facing the rest of the country.
Last month, we conducted focus groups among voters in Orlando, Florida and Columbus, Ohio. These voters were not talking about their investment portfolios. Instead, much of what we heard was about the quality of jobs available to middle-class and working people. People believe that America is producing jobs “you can’t live off.” And they are right.
When we conduct focus groups on the economy, we almost always read the most recent jobs report to see and hear participants’ reactions. In the middle of the recession, when so many were unemployed, our focus group respondents would get angry and doubt that jobs had been created at all. When participants in our most recent groups heard the new jobs report, however, they were less angry than skeptically resigned. The discussion was totally focused on the quality of jobs. Participants tell us that they have had to replace “one career job” with two or more “disposable jobs.” They understand that “you have to work twice as hard to make half as much as you used to.” And they ask, “how do these jobs stack up to the cost of living?”
As a result, sacrificing in big and small ways has become part of their routine. One woman in Columbus, Ohio told us, “After we pay our bills we make sure that our children eat but there’s times my husband and I can’t afford it and we eat peanut butter, potatoes, or rice. We make sure our children are eating 4 food groups but we can’t.” She works full-time. Her husband has two jobs.
Unsurprisingly, they say “I can’t afford to lose right now.”
Despite big gains on Wall Street, more people tell us that they have moved in with family members. Or that they get by with the help of neighbors, family, friends, and the PennySaver. But when three jobs per household are not enough, it is difficult to say that “getting by” is an appropriate level of economic security for American families. And when three jobs per household are not enough, it is difficult to say that there are not deeper structural problems with the American economy.
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