The Low-Wage Breadwinner

James Surowiecki notes that, in the past, “low-wage work tended to be done either by the young or by women looking for part-time jobs to supplement family income”:

As the historian Bethany Moreton has shown, Walmart in its early days sought explicitly to hire underemployed married women. Fast-food workforces, meanwhile, were dominated by teen-agers. Now, though, plenty of family breadwinners are stuck in these jobs. That’s because, over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has done a poor job of creating good middle-class jobs; five of the six fastest-growing job categories today pay less than the median wage.

That’s why, as a recent study by the economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones has shown, low-wage workers are older and better educated than ever. More important, more of them are relying on their paychecks not for pin money or to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families. Forty years ago, there was no expectation that fast-food or discount-retail jobs would provide a living wage, because these were not jobs that, in the main, adult heads of household did. Today, low-wage workers provide forty-six per cent of their family’s income. It is that change which is driving the demand for higher pay.

Surowiecki goes on to propose various ways to raise wages. Ryan Avent imagines the consequences of such actions:

We have a general sense for how this might play out. Economic historian Gavin Wright has described how the New Deal’s high-wage policies forced a complete reorganisation of the South’s low-wage economy. In agriculture and industry there was extensive upskilling and mechanisation, a process that launched the South on a path toward convergence with the rest of the American economy. That was very much a good thing. But it was a very different thing from a process in which wages rose for a set of low-wage workers alongside consumer adjustments. The workers that benefitted, for one thing, were often different from those that initially held the low-wage jobs. Whites displaced blacks in many cases, and the period coincided with a great migration of surplus low-wage labour from the South to the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.