Learning from history: community-run child-care centers during World War II

We face many big challenges.  And we will need strong, bold policies to meaningfully address them.  Solving our child-care crisis is one of those challenges, and a study of World War II government efforts to ensure accessible and affordable high-quality child care points the way to the kind of bold action we need. 

The child care crisis

A number of studies have established that high-quality early childhood programs provide significant community and individual benefits.  One found that “per dollar invested, early childhood programs increase present value of state per capita earnings by $5 to $9.”  Universal preschool programs have also been shown to offer significant benefits to all children, even producing better outcomes for the most disadvantaged children than means-tested programs.  Yet, even before the pandemic, most families struggled with a lack of desirable child-care options.    

The pandemic has now created a child-care crisis. As Lisa Dodson and Mary King point out: “By some estimates, as many as 4.5 million child-care ‘slots’ may be permanently lost and as many as 40 percent of child-care providers say they will never reopen.”  The lack of child care is greatly hindering our recovery from the pandemic.  Women suffered far greater job losses than men during 2020, including as child-care workers, and the child-care crisis has made it difficult for many working mothers to return to the labor force.  The cost goes beyond the immediate family hardship from lost income; there is strong evidence that a sustained period without work, the so-called employment gap, will result in significantly lower lifetime earnings and reduced retirement benefits.  

To his credit, President Biden has recognized the importance of strengthening our care economy.  His proposed American Families Plan includes some $225 billion in tax credits to help make child care more affordable for working families.  According to a White House fact sheet, families would “receive a tax credit for as much as half of their spending on qualified child care for children under age 13, up to a total of $4,000 for one child or $8,000 for two or more children. . . . The credit can be used for expenses ranging from full-time care to after school care to summer care.”

But tax credits don’t ensure the existence of convenient, affordable, high-quality child-care facilities staffed by well-paid and trained child-care providers.  And if that is what we really want, we will need to directly provide it.  That is what the government did during World War II.  While its program was far from perfect, in part because it was designed to be short-term, it provides an example of the type of strong, bold action we will need to overcome our current child-care crisis. 

Federal support for child care

During World War II the United States government financed a heavily-subsidized child-care program.  From August 1943 through February 1946, the Federal Works Agency (FWA), using Lanham Act funds, provided some $52 million in grants for child-care services (equal to more than $1 billion today) to any approved community group that could demonstrate a war-related need for the service.  At its July 1944 peak, 3,102 federally subsidized child-care centers, with some 130,000 children enrolled, operated throughout the country.  There was at least one center in every state but New Mexico, which decided against participation in the program.  By the end of the war, between 550,000 and 600,000 children received some care from Lanham Act funded child-care programs.  

Communities were allowed to use the federal grant money to cover most of the costs involved in establishing and running their centers, including facilities construction and upkeep, staff wages and most other daily operating costs.  They were required to provide some matching funds, most of which came from fees paid by the parents of children enrolled in the program.  However, these fees were capped. In the fall of 1943, the FWA established a ceiling on fees of 50 cents per child per day (about $7 now), which was raised to 75 cents in July 1945. And those fees included snacks, lunch, and in some cases dinner as well. Overall, the federal subsidy covered two-thirds of the total maintenance and operation of the centers.

The only eligibility requirement for enrollment was a mother’s employment status: she had to be working at a job considered important to the war effort, and this was not limited to military production. Center hours varied, but many accommodated the round-the-clock manufacturing schedule, staying open 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. 

The centers served preschoolers (infants, toddlers, and children up to 5 years of age) and school-age children (6 to 14 years of age). In July 1944, approximately 53,000 preschoolers and 77,000 school-age children were enrolled.  School-age enrollment always climbed during summer vacation.  However, in most months, preschoolers made up the majority of the children served by Lanham Act-funded centers. Enrollment of preschoolers peaked at some 74,000 in May 1945. 

Some 90 percent of the centers were housed in public schools, with newly contructed housing projects providing the next most used location. Although local school boards were free to decide program standards–including staff-child ratios, worker qualifications, and facility design–state boards of education were responsible for program supervision. The recommended teacher-child ratio was 10-to-1, and most centers complied.  According to Chris M. Herbst,

Anecdotal evidence suggests that preschool-aged children engaged in indoor and outdoor play; used educational materials such paints, clay, and musical instruments; and took regular naps. . . . Programs for school-aged children included . . . outdoor activities, participation in music and drama clubs, library reading, and assistance with schoolwork. 

Children at a child-care center sit for “story time.” (Gordon Parks / Library of Congress / The Crowley Company)

While quality did vary–largely the result of differences in community support for public child care, the willingness of cities to provide additional financial support, and the ability of centers to hire trained professionals to develop and oversee program activities–the centers did their best to deliver a high-quality childhood education.  As Ruth Peason Koshuk, the author of a 1947 study of the developmental records of 500 children, 2 to 5 years of age, at two Los Angeles Country centers, describes:

In these two . . . schools, as elsewhere, the program has developed since 1943, toward recognized standards of early childhood education. The aim has been to apply the best of existing standards, and to maintain as close contact with the home as possible. In-service training courses carrying college credit have been given, for the teaching staff, and a mutually helpful parent education program carried on in spite of difficulties inherent in a child care situation.

There has been a corresponding development in the basic records. A pre-entrance medical examination has been required by state law since the first center opened. In December 1943 a developmental record was added, which is filled out by the director during an unhurried interview with the mother just before a child enters. One page is devoted to infancy experience; the four following cover briefly the child’s development history, with emphasis on emotional experience, behavior problems he has presented to the parents, if any, and the control methods used, as well as the personal-social behavior traits which they value and desire for the child. After entrance, observational notes and semester reports are compiled by the teachers. Intelligence testing has been limited to cases where it seemed especially indicated. A closing record is filled out, in most cases, by the parent when a child is withdrawn. These records are considered a minimum. They have proved indispensable as aids to the teachers in guiding the individual children and as a basis for conferences on behavior in the home.

A 2013 study of the long-term effects on mothers and children from use of Lanham centers found a substantial increase in maternal employment, even five years after the end of the program, and “strong and persistent positive effects on well-being” for their children.

In short, despite many shortcomings, these Lanham centers, as Thalia Ertman sums up,

broke ground as the first and, to date, only time in American history when parents could send their children to federally-subsidized child care, regardless of income, and do so affordably. . . .

Additionally, these centers are seen as historically important because they sought to address the needs of both children and mothers. Rather than simply functioning as holding pens for children while their mothers were at work, the Lanham child care centers were found to have a strong and persistent positive effect on the well-being of children.

The federal government also supported some private employer-sponsored child care during the war. The most well-known example is the two massive centers built by the Kaiser Company in Portland, Oregon to provide child care for the children of workers at their Portland Yards and Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation. The centers were located right at the front of the shipyards, making it easy for mothers to drop their children off and pick them up, and were operated on a 24-hour schedule.  They were also large, each caring for up to 1,125 children between 18 months and 6 years of age. The centers had their own medical clinic, cafeteria, and large play areas, and employed highly trained staff.  Parents paid $5 for a six-day week for one child and $3.75 for each additional child.  For a small additional fee, the centers also prepared a small dinner for parents to pick up at the end of their working day.

While the Kaiser Company received much national praise as well as appreciation from its employees with young children, these centers were largely paid for by the government.  Government funds directly paid for their construction, and a majority of the costs of running the center, including staff salaries, were included in the company’s cost-plus contracting with the military.

Political dynamics

There was considerable opposition to federal financing of group child care, especially for children younger than 6 years of age.  The sentiment is captured in this quote from a 1943 New York Times article: “The worst mother is better than the best institution when it is a matter of child care, Mayor La Guardia declared.”  Even the War Manpower Commission initially opposed mothers with young children working outside the home, even in service of the war effort, stating that “The first responsibility of women with young children, in war as in peace, is to give suitable care in their own homes to their children.”

But on-the-ground realities made this an untenable position for both the government and business. Women sought jobs, whether out of economic necessity or patriotism.  The government, highlighted by its Rosie the Riveter campaign, was eager to encourage their employment in industries producing for the war effort.  And, despite public sentiment, a significant number of those women were mothers with young children. 

Luedell Mitchell and Lavada Cherry working at a Douglas Aircraft plant in El Segundo, Calif. Circa 1944. Credit: National Archives photo no. 535811

The growing importance of women in the workplace, and especially mothers with young children, is captured in employment trends in Portland, Oregon.  Women began moving into the defense workforce in great numbers starting in 1942, with the number employed in local war industries climbing from 7,000 in November 1942 to 40,000 in June 1943.  An official with the state child-care committee reported that “a check of six shipyards reveals that the number of women employed in the shipyards has increased 25 percent in one month and that the number is going to increase more rapidly in the future.” 

The number of employed mothers was also rapidly growing.  According to the Council of Social Agencies, “Despite the recommendations of the War Manpower Commission . . . thousands of young mothers in their twenties and thirties have accepted jobs in war industries and other businesses in Multnomah County. Of the 8,000 women employed at the Oregon Shipyards in January, 1943, 32 percent of them had children, 16 percent having pre-school children.”

Portland was far from unique.  During the war, for the first time, married women workers outnumbered single women workers.  Increasingly, employers began to recognize the need for child care to address absenteeism problems.  As a “women’s counselor” at the Bendix Aviation Corporation in New Jersey explained to reporters in 1943, child care is one of the biggest concerns for new hires. “We feel a mother should be with her small baby if possible. But many of them have to come back. Their husbands are in the service and they can’t get along on his allotment.”  Media stories, many unsubstantiated, of children left in parked cars outside workplaces or fending for themselves at home, also contributed to a greater public acceptance of group child care. 

An image of Rosie the Riveter that appeared in a 1943 issue of the magazine Hygeia

Finally, the government took action.  The Federal Works Agency was one of two new super agencies established in 1939 to oversee the large number of agencies created during the New Deal period.  In 1940 President Roosevelt signed into law the Lanham Act, which authorized the FWA to fund and supervise the construction of needed public infrastructure, such as housing, hospitals, water and sewer systems, police and firefighting facilities, and recreation centers, in communities experiencing rapid growth because of the defense buildup. In August 1942, the FWA decided, without any public debate, that public infrastructure also meant child care, and it began its program of support for the construction and operation of group child-care facilities.

The Federal Works Agency, the other super agency, whose oversight responsibilities included the Children’s Bureau and the U.S. Office of Education, opposed the FWA’s new child-care initiative.  It did so not only because it believed that child care fell under its mandate, but also because the leadership of the Children’s Bureau and Office of Education opposed group child care.  The FWA won the political battle, and in July 1943, Congress authorized additional funding for the FWA’s child-care efforts. 

And, as William M. Tuttle, Jr. describes, public pressure played an important part in the victory:

the proponents of group child care organized a potent lobbying effort. The women’s auxiliaries of certain industrial unions, such as the United Electrical Workers and the United Auto Workers, joined with community leaders and FWA officials in the effort. Also influential were the six women members of the House of Representatives. In February 1944, Representative Mary T. Norton presented to the House “a joint appeal” for immediate funds to expand the wartime child day care program under the FWA.

Termination and a step back

Congressional support for group child care was always tied to wartime needs, a position shared by most FWA officials.  The May 1945 Allied victory in Europe brought a drop in war production, and a reduction in FWA community child care approvals and renewals.  In August, after the Japanese surrender brought the war to a close, the FWA announced that it would end its funding of child-care centers as soon as possible, but no later than the end of October 1945.

Almost immediately thousands of individuals wrote letters, sent wires, and signed petitions calling for the continuation of the program.  Officials in California, the location of many war-related manufacturing sites and nearly 25 percent of all children enrolled in Lanham Act centers in August 1945, also weighed in, strongly supporting the call.  Congress yielded, largely influenced by the argument that since it would be months before all the “men” in the military returned to the country, mothers had no choice but to continue working and needed the support of the centers to do so.  It approved new funds, but only enough to keep the centers operating until the end of February 1946.

The great majority of centers rapidly closed not long after the termination of federal support, with demonstrations following many of the closings.  The common assumption was that women would not mind the closures, since most would be happy to return to homemaking.  Many women were, in fact, forced out of the labor force, disproportionately suffering from post-war industrial layoffs.  But by 1947, women’s labor force participation was again on the rise and a new push began for a renewal of federal support for community child-care centers. Unfortunately, the government refused to change its position. During the Korean War, Congress did approve a public child-care bill, but then it refused to authorize any funding.

After WWII, parents organized demonstrations, like this one in New York on Sept. 21, 1947, calling for the continuing funding of the centers. The city’s welfare commissioner dismissed the protests as “hysterical.” Credit: The New York Times

Finally, in 1954, as Sonya Michel explains, “Congress found an approach to child care it could live with: the child-care tax deduction.”  While the child-care tax deduction did offer some financial relief to some families, it did nothing to ensure the availability of affordable, high-quality child care.  The history of child care during World War II makes clear that this turn to market-based tax policy to solve child-care problems represented a big step back for working women and their children.  And this was well understood by most working people at the time. 

Sadly, this history has been forgotten, and Biden’s commitment to expand the child-care tax credit is now seen as an important step forward.  History shows we can and need to do better.

The latest argument against federal relief: business claims that workers won’t work

A growing number of business and political leaders have found yet another argument to use against federal pandemic relief programs, especially those that provide income support for workers: they hurt the economic recovery by encouraging workers not to work.

In the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as reported by BusinessInsider

“We have flooded the zone with checks that I’m sure everybody loves to get, and also enhanced unemployment,” McConnell said from Kentucky. “And what I hear from businesspeople, hospitals, educators, everybody across the state all week is, regretfully, it’s actually more lucrative for many Kentuckians and Americans to not work than work.”

He went on: “So we have a workforce shortage and we have raising inflation, both directly related to this recent bill that just passed.”

In line with business claims that they can’t find willing workers despite their best efforts at recruitment, the governors of Montana, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi have all announced that they will no longer allow the unemployed in their respective states to collect the $300-a-week federal supplemental unemployment benefit and will once again require that those receiving unemployment benefits demonstrate they are actively looking for work.

In reality there is little support for the argument that expanded unemployment benefits have created an overly worker-friendly labor market, leaving companies unable to hire and, by extension, meet growing demand.  But of course, if enough people accept the argument, corporate leaders and their political allies will have achieved their shared goal, which is to weaken worker bargaining power as corporations seek to position themselves for a profitable post-pandemic economic recovery.

Wage trends

If companies were aggressively seeking workers, we would expect to see the resulting competition push up wages.  The following figure shows year-over-year real weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers—approximately 85 percent of the workforce.  As we can see, those earnings were actually lower in April 2021 than they were in April 2020. 

In short, companies may want more workers, but it is hard to take their cries of anguish seriously if they remain unwilling to offer higher real wages to attract them.  Real average weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers in April 2021 stood at $875.  Multiplying weekly earnings by 50, gives an estimated annual salary of $43,774.  That total is actually 5.7 percent below the similarly calculated peak in October 1972.

Over the last three months, the only sector experiencing significant wage growth due to labor shortages is the leisure and hospitality sector (which includes arts, entertainment, and leisure as well as accommodations and food services).  Wages in that sector grew at an annualized rate of nearly 18 percent relative to the previous three months.  But, as Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz explain,

There is very little reason to worry that labor shortages in leisure and hospitality will soon spill over into other sectors and drive economywide “overheating.”  For example, jobs in leisure and hospitality have notably low wages and fewer hours compared to other sectors. Weekly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers in leisure and hospitality now equate to annual earnings of just $20,628, and total wages in leisure and hospitality account for just 4% of total private wages in the U.S. economy. . . . [Moreover] this sector seems notably segmented off from much of the rest of the economy.

Job openings and labor turnover

The figure below, drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS), shows the monthly movement in job openings, hires, quits, and layoffs and discharges, with solid lines showing their six-month moving averages.   

As we can see, despite business complaints, monthly hiring (green line) still remains greater than during the last years of the pre-pandemic expansion.  And although job openings (blue line) are growing sharply while the number of hires is falling, the gap between openings and hires is also still smaller than it was during the last years of the previous expansion.  In addition, the number of quits (light blue line), which are an indicator of labor tightness, remain below the last years of the previous expansion and rather stable.  In short, there is nothing in the data that suggests business is facing a dysfunctional labor market marked by an unreasonable worker unwillingness to work.

Even with the additional financial support in Biden’s American Rescue Plan, many workers and their families continue to struggle to afford food, housing, and health care.  Many workers remain reluctant to re-enter the labor market because of Covid-related health concerns and care responsibilities.  Moreover, as Heidi Shierholz points out

there are far more unemployed people than available jobs in the current labor market. In the latest data on job openings, there were nearly 40% more unemployed workers than job openings overall, and more than 80% more unemployed workers than job openings in the leisure and hospitality sector.

While there are certainly fewer people looking for jobs now than there would be if Covid weren’t a factor . . . without enough job openings to even come close to providing work for all job seekers, it again stretches the imagination to suggest that labor shortages are a core dynamic in the labor market.

We need to discredit this attempt by the business community and its political allies to generate opposition to policies that help workers survive this period of crisis and redouble our own efforts to strengthen worker rights and build popular support for truly transformative economic policies, ones that go beyond the stopgap fixes currently promoted.

Time to put the spotlight on corporate taxes

A battle is slowly brewing in Washington DC over whether to raise corporate taxes to help finance new infrastructure investments.  While higher corporate taxes cannot generate all the funds needed, the coming debate over whether to raise them gives us an opportunity to challenge the still strong popular identification of corporate profitability with the health of the economy and, by extension, worker wellbeing.

According to the media, President Biden’s advisers are hard at work on two major proposals with a combined $3 trillion price tag.  The first aims to modernize the country’s physical infrastructure and is said to include funds for the construction of roads, bridges, rail lines, ports, electric vehicle charging stations, and affordable and energy efficient housing as well as rural broadband, improvements to the electric grid, and worker training programs.  The second targets social infrastructure and would provide funds for free community college education, universal prekindergarten, and a national paid leave program. 

To pay for these proposals, Biden has been talking up the need to raise corporate taxes, at least to offset some of the costs of modernizing the country’s physical infrastructure.  Not surprisingly, Republican leaders in Congress have voiced their opposition to corporate tax increases.  And corporate leaders have drawn their own line in the sand.  As the New York Times reports:

Business groups have warned that corporate tax increases would scuttle their support for an infrastructure plan. “That’s the kind of thing that can just wreck the competitiveness in a country,” Aric Newhouse, the senior vice president for policy and government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers, said last month [February 2021].

Regardless of whether Biden decides to pursue his broad policy agenda, this appears to be a favorable moment for activists to take advantage of media coverage surrounding the proposals and their funding to contest these kinds of corporate claims and demonstrate the anti-working-class consequences of corporate profit-maximizing behavior.  

What do corporations have to complain about?

To hear corporate leaders talk, one would think that they have been subjected to decades of tax increases.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  The figure below shows the movement in the top corporate tax rate.  As we can see, it peaked in the early 1950s and has been falling ever since, with a big drop in 1986, and another in 2017, thanks to Congressionally approved tax changes.

One consequence of this corporate friendly tax policy is, as the following figure shows, a steady decline in federal corporate tax payments as a share of GDP.  These payments fell from 5.6 percent of GDP in 1953 to 1.5 percent in 1982, and a still lower 1.0 percent in 2020.  By contrast there has been very little change in individual income tax payments as a share of GDP; they were 7.7 percent of GDP in 2020.

Congressional tax policy has certainly been good for the corporate bottom line.  As the next figure illustrates, both pre-tax and after-tax corporate profits have risen as a share of GDP since the early 1980s.  But the rise in after-tax profits has been the most dramatic, soaring from 5.2 percent of GDP in 1980 to 9.1 percent in 2019, before dipping slightly to 8.8 percent in 2020.   To put recent after-tax profit gains in perspective, the 2020 after-tax profit share is greater than the profit share in every year from 1930 to 2005.

What do corporations do with their profits?

Corporations claim that higher taxes would hurt U.S. competitiveness, implying that they need their profits to invest and keep the economy strong.  Yet, despite ever higher after-tax rates of profit, private investment in plant and equipment has been on the decline.

As the figure below shows, gross private domestic nonresidential fixed investment as a share of GDP has been trending down since the early 1980s.  It fell from 14.8 percent in 1981 to 13.4 percent in 2020.

Rather than investing in new plant and equipment, corporations have been using their profits to fund an aggressive program of stock repurchases and dividend payouts.  The figure below highlights the rise in corporate stock buybacks, which have helped drive up stock prices, enriching CEOs and other top wealth holders. In fact, between 2008 and 2017, companies spent some 53 percent of their profits on stock buybacks and another 30 percent on dividend payments.

It should therefore come as no surprise that CEO compensation is also exploding, with CEO-to-worker compensation growing from 21-to-1 in 1965, to 61-to-1 in 1989, 293-to-1 in 2018, and 320-to-1 in 2019.  As we see in the next figure, the growth in CEO compensation has actually been outpacing the rise in the S&P 500.

In sum, the system is not broken.  It continues to work as it is supposed to work, generating large profits for leading corporations that then find ways to generously reward their top managers and stockholders.  Unfortunately, investing in plant and equipment, creating decent jobs, or supporting public investment are all low on the corporate profit-maximizing agenda.  

Thus, if we are going to rebuild and revitalize our economy in ways that meaningfully serve the public interest, working people will have to actively promote policies that will enable them to gain control over the wealth their labor produces.  One example: new labor laws that strengthen the ability of workers to unionize and engage in collective and solidaristic actions.  Another is the expansion of publicly funded and provided social programs, including for health care, housing, education, energy, and transportation. 

And then there are corporate taxes.  Raising them is one of the easiest ways we have to claw back funds from the private sector to help finance some of the investment we need.  Perhaps more importantly, the fight over corporate tax increases provides us with an important opportunity to make the case that the public interest is not well served by reliance on corporate profitability.

The U.S. recovery on pause, December brings new job losses

A meaningful working-class recovery from the recession seems far away.

After seven months of job gains, although diminishing gains to be sure, we are again losing jobs.  As the chart below shows,  the number of jobs fell by 140,000 in December.

We are currently about 9.8 million jobs down from the February 2020 employment peak, having recovered only 55 percent of the jobs lost.  And, as the following chart illustrates, the percentage of jobs lost remains greater, even now after months of job growth, than it was at any point during the Great Recession. 

If the job recovery continues on its current pace, some analysts predict that it will likely take more than three years to just get back to pre-pandemic employment levels.  However, this might well be too rosy a projection.  One reason is that the early assumption that many of the job losses were temporary, and that those unemployed would soon be recalled to employment, is turning out to be wrong.  A rapidly growing share of the unemployed are remaining unemployed for an extended period. 

As we see below, in October, almost one-third of the unemployed had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer.  According to the December jobs report, that percentage is now up to 37 percent, four times what it was before the pandemic.  And that figure seriously understates the problem, since many workers have given up looking for work; having dropped out of the workforce, they are no longer counted as unemployed.  The labor force participation rate is now 61.5 percent, down from 63.3 percent in February.

Dean Baker, quoted in a recent Market Place story, underscores the importance of this development:

“This is obviously a story of people losing their job at the beginning of the crisis in March and April and not getting it back,” said Dean Baker, co-founder and senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Those out of work for 27 weeks or more make up a growing share of the unemployed, and that could have enduring consequences, Baker said.

“After people have been unemployed for more than six months, they find it much harder to get a job,” he said. “And if they do get a job, their labor market prospects could be permanently worsened.”

And tragically, the workers that have suffered the greatest job losses during this crisis are those that earned the lowest wages. 

It is no wonder that growing numbers of working people are finding it difficult to meet their basic needs.

There is no way to sugar coat this situation.  We need a significant stimulus package, a meaningful increase in the minimum wage, real labor law reform, a robust national single-payer health care system, and an aggressive Green New Deal designed public sector investment and jobs program.  And there is no getting around the fact that it is going to take hard organizing and mutually supportive community and workplace actions to move the country in the direction it needs to go.

COVID-19 Economic Crisis Snapshot

 Workers in the United States are in the midst of a punishing COVID-19 economic crisis.  Unfortunately, while a new fiscal spending package and an effective vaccine can bring needed relief, a meaningful sustained economic recovery will require significant structural changes in the operation and orientation of the economy.

The unemployment problem

Many people blame government mandated closure orders for the decline in economic activity and spike in unemployment.  But the evidence points to widespread concerns about the virus as the driving force.  As Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano describe in a New York Times article, and as illustrated in the following graphic taken from the article:

In the weeks before states around the country issued lockdown orders this spring, Americans were already hunkering down. They were spending less, traveling less, dining out less. Small businesses were already cutting employment. Some were even closing shop.

People were behaving this way — effectively winding down the economy — before the government told them to. And that pattern, apparent in a range of data looking back over the past two months, suggests in the weeks ahead that official pronouncements will have limited power to open the economy back up.

As the graphic shows, economic activity nosedived around the same time regardless of whether state governments were quick to mandate closings, slow to mandate closings, or unwilling to issue stay-at-home orders.

The resulting sharp decline in economic activity caused unemployment to soar. Almost 21 million jobs were lost in April at the peak of the crisis.  The unemployment rate hit a high of 14.7 percent.  By comparison the highest unemployment rate during the Great Recession was 10.6 percent in January 2010.

Employment recovered the next month, with an increase of 2.8 million jobs in May.  In June, payrolls grew by an even greater number, 4.8 million.  But things have dramatically slowed since.  In July, only 1.8 million jobs came back.  In August it was 1.5 million.  And in September it was only 661,000.  To this point, only half of the jobs lost have returned, and current trends are far from encouraging.

The unemployment rate fell to 7.9 percent in September, a significant decline from April.  But a large reason for that decline is that millions of workers have given up working or looking for work and are no longer counted as being part of the labor force.  And, as Alisha Haridasani Gupta writes in the New York Times:

A majority of those dropping out were women. Of the 1.1 million people ages 20 and over who left the work force (neither working nor looking for work) between August and September, over 800,000 were women, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. That figure includes 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women. For comparison, 216,000 men left the job market in the same time period.

The relationship between the fall in the unemployment rate and worker exodus from the labor market is illustrated in the next figure which shows both the unemployment rate and the labor force participation rate (LFPR), which is measured by dividing the number of people 16 and over who are employed or seeking employment by the size of the civilian noninstitutional population that is 16 and over.

The figure allows us to see that even the relatively “low” September unemployment rate of 7.9 percent is still high by historical standards.  It also allows us to see that its recent decline was aided by a decline in the LFPR to a level not seen since the mid-1970s.  If those who left the labor market were to decide to once again seek employment, pushing the LFPR back up, unless the economic environment changed dramatically, the unemployment rate would also be pushed up to a much higher level.

Beyond the aggregate figures is the fact, as Heather Long, Andrew Van Dam, Alyssa Fowers and Leslie Shapiro explain in a Washington Post article, that “No other recession in modern history has so pummeled society’s most vulnerable.”

As we can see in the above graphic, the 1990 recession was a relatively egalitarian affair with all income groups suffering roughly a similar decline in employment.  That changed during the recessions of 2001 and 2008, with the lowest earning cohort suffering the most.  But, as the authors of the Washington Post article state, “even that inequality is a blip compared with what the coronavirus inflicted on low-wage workers this year.”  By the end of the summer, the employment crisis was largely over for the highest earners, while employment was still down more than 20 percent for low-wage workers and around 10 percent for middle-wage workers.

Poverty is on the rise

In line with this disproportionate hit suffered by low wage workers, the poverty rate has been climbing.  Five Columbia University researchers, using a monthly version of the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), provide estimates of the monthly poverty rate from October 2019 through September 2020.  They found, as illustrated below, “that the monthly poverty rate increased from 15% to 16.7% from February to September 2020, even after taking the CARES Act’s income transfers into account. Increases in monthly poverty rates have been particularly acute for Black and Hispanic individuals, as well as for children.”

The standard poverty measure used by the federal government is an annual one, based on whether a family’s total annual income falls below a specified income level.  It doesn’t allow for monthly calculations and is widely criticized for using an extremely low emergency food budget to set its poverty level.   The SPM includes a more complete and accurate measure of family resources, a more expansive definition of family, the cost of a broader basket of necessities, and is adjusted for cost of living across metro areas.

As we can see in the above figure, the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law on March 27th, 2020, has had a positive effect on poverty levels.  For example, without it, the poverty rate would have jumped to 19.4 percent in April. “Put differently, the CARE Act’s income transfers directly lifted around 18 million individuals out of poverty in April.”

However, as we can also see, the positive effects of the CARES Act have gradually dissipated.  The Economic Impact Payments (“Recovery Rebates”) were one-time payments.  The $600 per week unemployment supplement expired at the end of July.  Thus, the gap between the monthly SPM with and without the CARES Act has gradually narrowed.  And, with job creation dramatically slowing, without a new federal stimulus measure it is likely we will not see much improvement in the poverty rate in the coming months.  In fact, if working people continue to leave the labor market out of discouragement and the pressure of home responsibilities, there is a good chance the poverty rate will climb again.

It is also important to note that the rise in monthly rates of poverty, even with the CARES Act, differs greatly by race/ethnicity as illustrated in the following figure.

The need to do more

Republican opposition to a new stimulus ensures that that there will be no follow-up to the CARES Act before the upcoming election.  Opponents claim that the federal government has already done enough and the economy is well on its way to recovery. 

As for the size of the stimulus, the United States has been a lagger when it comes to its fiscal response to the pandemic.  The OECD recently published an interim report titled “Coronavirus: Living with uncertainty.”  One section of the report looks at fiscal support as a percent of 2019 GDP for nine countries. As the following figure shows, the United States trails every country but Korea when it comes to direct support for workers, firms, and health care.  

A big change is needed

While it is natural to view COVID-19 as responsible for our current crisis, the truth is that our economic problems are more long-term.  The U.S. economy has been steadily weakening for years.  In the figure below, the “trend” line is based on the 2.1% average rate of growth in real per capita GDP from 1970 to 2007, the year before the Great Recession.  Not surprising, real per capita GDP took a big hit during the Great Recession.  But as we can also see, real per capita GDP has yet to return to its historical trend. In fact, the gap has grown larger despite the record long recovery that followed. 

As Doug Henwood explains:

Since 2009, the growth rate has averaged 1.6%. Last year [2019], which Trump touted as the greatest economy ever, it managed to get back to the pre-2008 average of 2.1%, an average that includes two deep recessions (1973–1975 and 1981–1982).

At the end of 2019, actual [real GDP per capita] was 13% below trend. At the end of the 2008–2009 recession it was 9% below trend. Remarkably, despite a decade-long expansion, it fell further below trend in well over half the quarters since the Great Recession ended. The gap is now equal to $10,200 per person—a permanent loss of income, as economists say. 

The pre-coronavirus period of expansion (June 2009 to February 2020), although the longest on record, was actually also one of the weakest. It was marked by slow growth, weak job creation, deteriorating job quality, declining investment, rising debt, declining life expectancy, and narrowing corporate profit margins. In other words, the economy was heading toward recession even before the start of state mandated lockdowns.  The manufacturing sector actually spent much of 2019 in recession.   

Thus, there is strong reason to believe that a meaningful sustained recovery from the current COVID-19 economic crisis is going to require more than the development of an effective vaccine and a responsive health care system to ensure its wide distribution.  Also needed is significant structural change in the operation and orientation of the economy.

There is a union difference: mortality rates from COVID-19 are lower in unionized nursing homes

We need strong unions, all of us.  Tragically, even during the pandemic, businesses continue to aggressively resist worker attempts at unionization. And recent decisions by the NLRB only add to worker difficulties.

Here is one example of what is at stake: a recently published study of New York State nursing homes found that mortality rates from COVID-19 were 30 percent lower in unionized nursing homes than in facilities without health care worker unions.  By gaining better protection for themselves, unionized workers were also able to better protect the health of those they served.

Although the pandemic makes organizing and solidarity actions more difficult, it is essential that we find effective ways to support worker struggles for strong unions.

Work during the pandemic

Many workers, especially those now celebrated as “essential” or “frontline,” don’t feel safe at work, and for good reason.  Many have been denied needed personal protective equipment (PPE) or even information about the health status of their coworkers.

While surveys find that many employers have implemented new workplace cleaning procedures, they also find that a large percentage of workers continue to work without access to PPE, especially masks and gloves.  Strikingly, according to one study,

If [worker] access to PPE was limited in our data, policies mandating that workers wear protective gear were even more uncommon. Around a third of workers in restaurants, fast food, coffee shops, and hotels and motels reported requirements to wear gloves. This share was dramatically lower (around 12%) in big-box stores, department stores, retail stores, grocery stores, and pharmacies. The share of workers required to wear gloves was even lower in warehouses, fulfillment centers, and in delivery. Mask requirements were vanishingly uncommon across workplaces, at between 2% and 7% in convenience stores, coffee shops, fast food, restaurants, grocery stores, retail, department stores, and big-box stores. Just 12% of those in fulfillment centers reported a mask requirement, which was significantly higher than the 5% of warehouse and delivery workers.

Adding to the danger, many companies are aggressively trying to keep information about worker infections secret from coworkers and the public.  As a Bloomberg Law post explains:

U.S. businesses have been on a silencing spree. Hundreds of U.S. employers across a wide range of industries have told workers not to share information about Covid-19 cases or even raise concerns about the virus, or have retaliated against workers for doing those things, according to workplace complaints filed with the NLRB and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Workers at Amazon.com, Cargill, McDonald’s, and Target say they were told to keep Covid cases quiet. The same sort of gagging has been alleged in OSHA complaints against Smithfield Foods, Urban Outfitters, and General Electric. In an email viewed by Bloomberg Businessweek, Delta Air Lines told its 25,000 flight attendants to “please refrain from notifying other crew members on your own” about any Covid symptoms or diagnoses. At Recreational Equipment Inc., an employee texted colleagues to say he’d tested positive and that “I was told not to tell anybody” and “to not post or say anything on social media.”

These policies may help the corporate bottom line, but they endanger workers and those they serve, and thereby help to spread the pandemic.

Without unions, workers have limited ways to force their employers to create a safe work environment.  One is to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  And, despite fears of retaliation, many workers have done just that.  As a Brookings blog post reports:

Using data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), [the figure below] shows the cumulative number of COVID-19 related workplace safety complaints. Between April 20 and August 20, total COVID-19 related workplace safety complaints rose over 350 percent.

Unfortunately, these complaints have achieved little.  According to the Bloomberg Law post,Many thousands of OSHA complaints about coronavirus safety issues have yielded citations against just two companies—a health-care company and a nursing home—totaling about $47,000.” OSHA has still not issued any regulations that address the pandemic.

OSHA rarely sends out inspectors to investigate complaints.  The Bloomberg Law post describes one case in which a mechanic at Maid-Rite, a company that supplies frozen meat products to military bases, nursing homes, and schools, wrote to OSHA describing unsafe conditions:

The mechanic says OSHA called him to say it would be sending Maid-Rite a letter instead of coming to inspect the plant, and that was the last he ever heard from the agency about his complaint. Letters between OSHA and Maid-Rite show OSHA told Maid-Rite in April to investigate worker allegations itself, and Maid-Rite wrote back saying that it was providing and mandating masks and that 6-foot distancing sometimes wasn’t feasible.

No changes were made and so other workers followed up with more complaints over the following weeks, leading OSHA to finally send an inspector to the plant.  However,

in a break from typical protocol, [the inspector] gave the company a heads-up. “OSHA is here, so do everything right!” a supervisor told staff during the inspection, the mechanic later wrote in an affidavit. Fifteen minutes later, the supervisor returned to say “Never mind,” because the visit was over, the mechanic wrote: “As soon as OSHA left, everything went exactly back to the way it was.”

Unions can help

Unions are far from perfect, but they are one of the most effective means workers have to protect their interests, and by extension those they serve.  That point is highlighted by the results of the above noted study on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes which found that mortality rates from COVID-19 are lower in unionized nursing homes.  This is significant because approximately 43% of all reported COVID-19 deaths in the United States have occurred in nursing homes.

The three authors–Adam Dean, Atheendar Venkataramani, and Simeon Kimmel–focused on nursing homes in New York State, which has had over 6,500 COVID-19 nursing home deaths, second only to New Jersey.  The authors built a model that attempted to explain the variation in confirmed COVID-19 deaths at these New York State nursing homes with an eye to determining if the presence of a health care union made a difference.  They used “proprietary data from 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the Communication Workers of America (CWA), as well as publicly-available data from the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) to determine if a labor union represented health care workers in each facility.”

Their cross-section regression model also included a range of nonunion variables as possible causes for the variation.  These variables included: whether or not a facility had an adequate supply of PPEs, including masks, eye shields, gowns, gloves, and hand sanitizer; the average age of residents; Resource Utilization Group Nursing Case Mix Index of resident acuity, which classifies patient care needs based on diagnosis, proposed treatment, and level of needed assistance with activities of daily living; occupancy rates; staff-hours-to resident-days ratios for RN, CNA, and licensed practical nurses; percent of residents whose primary support comes from Medicaid or Medicare; Overall 5-Star Rating; whether the nursing home was part of a chain; whether the nursing home was for-profit or non-profit; and county-level data on confirmed cases of COVID-19 and population.

Their main regression result, confirmed by several sensitivity tests, was that, taking all the other variables into account, the presence of a health care labor union was associated with a 30% relative decrease in the COVID-19 mortality rate compared to facilities without a health care labor union.

In examining possible reasons for this result, they ran two other regressions.  One found that the presence of a health care labor union was associated with a 13.8% relative increase in access to N95 masks and a 7.3% relative increase in access to eye shields. Labor union status was not a significant predictor of access to other types of PPE.  The other regression found that the presence of a health care labor union was associated with a 42% relative decrease in the COVID-19 infection rate.

The struggle ahead

There is good reason to believe that the union benefits found by Dean, Venkataramani, and Kimmel in their study are not limited to New York State nursing homes.  Unions are one of the most effective ways for workers to ensure access to critical PPEs and implementation of safety regulations, things that as noted above workers desperately seek.

But of course, corporations don’t want to pay the higher costs that come with unionization.  They prefer the status quo, where working people are forced to pay far greater costs, individually and collectively.  And even in the midst of the pandemic, the NLRB continues to pass new rules making it ever more difficult for workers to unionize.

Workers are increasingly coming to understand that they cannot rely on OSHA or the NLRB to defend their interests. Thus, growing numbers of workers are bravely engaging in direct action, risking their jobs, to fight for their rights and the safety of their co-workers.  We need to find ways to support them and improve the broader environment for organizing and unionizing. A recent Gallup poll offers one hopeful sign: approval of unions continues to grow.

Defunding police and challenging militarism, a necessary response to their “battle space”

The excessive use of force and killings of unarmed Black Americans by police has fueled a popular movement for slashing police budgets, reimagining policing, and directing freed funds to community-based programs that provide medical and mental health care, housing, and employment support to those in need.  This is a long overdue development.

Police are not the answer

Police budgets rose steadily from the 1990s to the Great Recession and, despite the economic stagnation that followed, have remained largely unchanged.  This trend is highlighted in the figure below, which shows real median per capita spending on police in the 150 largest U.S. cities.  That spending grew, adjusted for inflation, from $359 in 2007 to $374 in 2017.  The contrast with state and local government spending on social programs is dramatic.  From 2007 to 2017, median per capita spending on housing and community development fell from $217 to $173, while spending on public welfare programs fell from $70 to $47.

Thus, as economic developments over the last three decades left working people confronting weak job growth, growing inequality, stagnant wages, declining real wealth, and rising rates of mortality, funding priorities meant that the resulting social consequences would increasingly be treated as policing problems.  And, in line with other powerful trends that shaped this period–especially globalization, privatization, and militarization–police departments were encouraged to meet their new responsibilities by transforming themselves into small, heavily equipped armies whose purpose was to wage war against those they were supposed to protect and serve. 

The military-to-police pipeline

The massive, unchecked militarization of the country and its associated military-to-police pipeline was one of the more powerful factors promoting this transformation.  The Pentagon, overflowing with military hardware and eager to justify a further modernization of its weaponry, initiated a program in the early 1990s that allowed it to provide surplus military equipment free to law enforcement agencies, allegedly to support their “war on drugs.”  As a Forbes article explains:

Since the early 1990s, more than $7 billion worth of excess U.S. military equipment has been transferred from the Department of Defense to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, free of charge, as part of its so-called 1033 program. As of June [2020], there are some 8,200 law enforcement agencies from 49 states and four U.S. territories participating. 

The program grew dramatically after September 11, 2001, justified by government claims that the police needed to strengthen their ability to combat domestic terrorism.  As an example of the resulting excesses, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2014 that the Los Angeles Unified School District and its police officers were in possession of three grenade launchers, 61 automatic military rifles and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle. Finally, in 2015, President Obama took steps to place limits on the items that could be transferred; tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and bayonets were among the items that were to be returned to the military.

President Trump removed those limits in 2017, and the supplies are again flowing freely, including armored vehicles, riot gear, explosives, battering rams, and yes, once again bayonets.  According to the New York Times, “Trump administration officials said that the police believed bayonets were handy, for instance, in cutting seatbelts in an emergency.”

Outfitting police departments for war also encouraged different criteria for recruiting and training. For example, as Forbes notes, “The average police department spends 168 hours training new recruits on firearms, self-defense, and use of force tactics. It spends just nine hours on conflict management and mediation.”  Arming and training police for military action leads naturally to the militarization of police relations with community members, especially Black, Indigeous and other people of color, who come to play the role of the enemy that needs to be controlled or, if conditions warrant, destroyed.

In fact, the military has become a major cheerleader for domestic military action.  President Trump, on a call with governors after the start of demonstrations protesting the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd while in police custody, exhorted them to “dominate” the street protests.

As the Washington Examiner reports:

“You’ve got a big National Guard out there that’s ready to come and fight like hell,” Trump told governors on the Monday call, which was leaked to the press.

[Secretary of Defense] Esper lamented that only two states called up more than 1,000 Guard members of the 23 states that have called up the Guard in response to street protests. The National Guard said Monday that 17,015 Guard members have been activated for civil unrest.

“I agree, we need to dominate the battle space,” Esper said after Trump’s initial remarks. “We have deep resources in the Guard. I stand ready, the chairman stands ready, the head of the National Guard stands ready to fully support you in terms of helping mobilize the Guard and doing what they need to do.”

The militarization of the federal budget

The same squeeze of social spending and support for militarization is being played out at the federal level.  As the National Priorities Project highlights in the following figure, the United States has a military budget greater than the next ten countries combined.

Yet, this dominance has done little to slow the military’s growing hold over federal discretionary spending.  At $730 billion, military spending accounts for more than 53 percent of the federal discretionary budget.  A slightly broader notion, what the National Priorities Project calls the militarized budget, actually accounts for almost two-thirds of the discretionary budget.  The militarized budget:

includes discretionary spending on the traditional military budget, as well as veterans’ affairs, homeland security, and law enforcement and incarceration. In 2019, the militarized budget totaled $887.8 billion – amounting to 64.5 percent of discretionary spending. . . . This count does not include forms of militarized spending allocated outside the discretionary budget, include mandatory spending related to veterans’ benefits, intelligence agencies, and interest on militarized spending.

The militarized budget has been larger than the non-militarized budget every year since 1976.  But the gap between the two has grown dramatically over the last two decades. 

In sum, the critical ongoing struggle to slash police budgets and reimagine policing needs to be joined to a larger movement against militarism more generally if we are to make meaningful improvements in majority living and working conditions.

Racism, COVID-19, and the fight for economic justice

While the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the United States were triggered by recent police murders of unarmed African Americans, they are also helping to encourage popular recognition that racism has a long history with punishing consequences for black people that extend beyond policing.  Among the consequences are enormous disparities between black and white well-being and security.  This post seeks to draw attention to some of these disparities by highlighting black-white trends in unemployment, wages, income, wealth, and security. 

A common refrain during this pandemic is that “We are all in it together.”  Although this is true in the sense that almost all of us find our lives transformed for the worst because of COVID-19, it is also not true in some very important ways.  For example, African Americans are disproportionally dying from the virus.  They account for 22.4 percent of all COVID-19 deaths despite making up only 12.5 percent of the population. 

One reason is that African Americans also disproportionally suffer from serious preexisting health conditions, a lack of health insurance, and inadequate housing, all of which increased their vulnerability to the virus.  Another reason is that black workers are far more likely than white workers to work in “front-line” jobs, especially low-wage ones, forcing them to risk their health and that of their families.  While black workers comprise 11.9 percent of the labor force, they make up 17 percent of all front-line workers.  They represent an even higher percentage in some key front-line industries: 26 percent of public transit workers; 19.3 percent of child care and social service workers; and 18.2 percent of trucking, warehouse and postal service workers.

African Americans have also disproportionately lost jobs during this pandemic.  The black employment to adult population ratio fell from 59.4 percent before the start of the pandemic to a record low of 48.8 percent in April.  Not surprisingly, recent surveys find, as the Washington Post reports, that:

More than 1 in 5 black families now report they often or sometimes do not have enough food — more than three times the rate for white families. Black families are also almost four times as likely as whites to report they missed a mortgage payment during the crisis — numbers that do not bode well for the already low black homeownership rate.

This pandemic has hit African Americans especially hard precisely because they were forced to confront it from a position of economic and social vulnerability as the following trends help to demonstrate.

Unemployment

The Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting separate data on African American unemployment in January 1972.  Since then, as the figure below shows, the African American unemployment rate has largely stayed at or above twice the white unemployment rate. 

As Olugbenga Ajilore explains

Between strides in civil rights legislation, desegregation of government, and increases in educational attainment, employment gaps should have narrowed by now, if not completely closed. Yet as [the figure above] shows, this has not been the case.

Wages

The figure below from an Economic Policy Institute study, shows the black-white wage gap for workers in different earning percentiles, by education level, and regression-adjusted (to control for age, gender, education and regional differences).  As we can see, the wage gap has grown over time regardless of measure. 

Elise Gould summarizes some important take-aways from this study:

The black–white wage gap is smallest at the bottom of the wage distribution, where the minimum wage serves as a wage floor. The largest black–white wage gap as well as the one with the most growth since the Great Recession, is found at the top of the wage distribution, explained in part by the pulling away of top earners generally as well as continued occupational segregation, the disproportionate likelihood for white workers to occupy positions in the highest-wage professions.

It’s clear from the figure that education is not a panacea for closing these wage gaps. Again, this should not be shocking, as increased equality of educational access—as laudable a goal as it is—has been shown to have only small effects on class-based wage inequality, and racial wealth gaps have been almost entirely unmoved by a narrowing of the black–white college attainment gap . . . . And after controlling for age, gender, education, and region, black workers are paid 14.9% less than white workers.

Income

The next figure shows that while median household income has generally stagnated for all races/ethnicities over the period 2000 to 2017, only blacks have suffered an actual decline.  The median income for black households actually fell from $42,348 to $40,258 over this period.  As a consequence, the black-white income gap has grown.  The median black household in 2017 earned just 59 cents for every dollar of income earned by the white median household, down from 65 cents in 2000.

Moreover, as Valerie Wilson, points out, “Based on [Economic Policy Institute] imputed historical income values, 10 years after the start of the Great Recession in 2007, only African American and Asian households have not recovered their pre-recession median income.“  Median household income for African American households fell 1.9 percent or $781 over the period 2007 to 2017.  While the decline was greater for Asian households (3.8 percent), they continued to have the highest median income.

Wealth

The wealth gap between black and white households also remains large.  In 1968, median black household wealth was $6,674 compared with median white household wealth of $70,768.  In 2016, as the figure below shows, it was $13,024 compared with $149,703.

As the Washington Post summarizes:

“The historical data reveal that no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years,” wrote economists Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick and Ulrike I. Steins in their analysis of U.S. incomes and wealth since World War II.

As of 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, you would have to combine the net worth of 11.5 black households to get the net worth of a typical white U.S. household.

The self-reinforcing nature of racial discrimination is well illustrated in the next figure.  It shows the median household wealth by education level as defined by the education level of the head of household. 

As we see, black median household wealth is below white median household wealth at every education level, with the gap growing with the level of education.  In fact, the median black household headed by someone with an advanced degree has less wealth than the median white household headed by someone with only a high school diploma.  The primary reason for this is that wealth is passed on from generation to generation, and the history of racism has made it difficult for black families to accumulate wealth much less pass it on to future generations. 

Security

The dollar value of household ownership of liquid assets is one measure of economic security.  The greater the value, the easier it is for a household to weather difficult times not to mention unexpected crises, such as today’s pandemic.  And as one might expect in light of the above income and wealth trends, black households have far less security than do white households.

As we can see in the following figure, the median black household held only $8,762 in liquid assets (as defined as the sum of all cash, checking and savings accounts, and directly held stocks, bonds, and mutual funds).  In comparison, the median white household held $49,529 in liquid assets.  And the black-white gap is dramatically larger for households headed by someone with a bachelors degree or higher. 

Hopeful possibilities

The fight against police violence against African Americans, now being advanced in the streets, will eventually have to be expanded and the struggle for racial justice joined to a struggle for economic justice.  Ending the disparities highlighted above will require nothing less than a transformational change in the organization and workings of our economy.

One hopeful sign is the widespread popular support for and growing participation in the Black Lives Matter-led movement that is challenging not only racist policing but the idea of policing itself and is demanding that the country acknowledge and confront its racist past.  Perhaps the ways in which our current economic system has allowed corporations to so quickly shift the dangers and costs of the pandemic on to working people, following years of steady decline in majority working and living conditions, is helping whites better understand the destructive consequences of racism and encouraging this political awakening. 

If so, perhaps we have arrived at a moment where it will be possible to build a multi-racial working class-led movement for structural change that is rooted in and guided by a commitment to achieving economic justice for all people of color. One can only hope that is true for all our sakes.

The economy: we are still in big trouble

The announcement by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the federal unemployment rate declined to 13.3 percent in May, from 14.7 percent in April, took most analysts by surprise.  The economy added 2.5 million jobs in May, the first increase in employment since February.  Most economists had predicted further job losses and a rise in the unemployment rate to as high as 20 percent.

This employment gain has encouraged some analysts, especially those close to the Trump administration, to proclaim that their predicted V-shaped economic recovery had begun.  But there are strong reasons to believe that the US economy is far from recovery.

Long term trends and the coronavirus

Predictions for a V-shaped recovery rest to a considerable degree on the belief that our current economic collapse was caused by state mandated business closures to battle the coronavirus which unsurprisingly choked off our long expansion.  Now that a growing number of states are ending their forced lockdowns it is only natural that the economy would resume growing.  Certainly, the stock market’s recent rise suggests that many investors agree. 

However, there are many reasons to challenge this upbeat story of impending recovery.  One of the most important is that the pre-coronavirus period of expansion (June 2009 to February 2020), although the longest on record, was also one of the weakest. It was marked by slow growth, weak job creation, deteriorating job quality, declining investment, rising debt, declining life expectancy, and narrowing corporate profit margins. In other words, the economy was heading toward recession even before the start of state mandated lockdowns.  For example, the manufacturing sector spent much of 2019 in recession.   

Another reason is that the downturn in economic activity that marks the start of our current recession predates lockdown orders.  It was driven by health concerns.  As Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano explain in their New York Times article, and as illustrated in the following graphic taken from the article:

In the weeks before states around the country issued lockdown orders this spring, Americans were already hunkering down. They were spending less, traveling less, dining out less. Small businesses were already cutting employment. Some were even closing shop.

People were behaving this way — effectively winding down the economy — before the government told them to. And that pattern, apparent in a range of data looking back over the past two months, suggests in the weeks ahead that official pronouncements will have limited power to open the economy back up.

In some states that have already begun that process, like Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska, the same daily economic data shows only meager signs so far that businesses, workers and consumers have returned to their old routines.

Thus, while some rebound in economic growth is to be expected given the severity of the downturn to this point, it is unlikely that the May employment jump signals the start of a powerful economic recovery.  Weak underlying economic conditions and health worries remain significant obstacles.

In fact, even the optimistic US Congressional Budget Office predicts at best a long, slow recovery.  As Michael Roberts describes:

It now expects US nominal GDP to fall 14.2% in the first half of 2020, from the trend it forecast in January before the COVID-19 pandemic broke. Then it expects the various fiscal and monetary injections by the authorities and the end of the lockdowns to reduce this loss from the January figure to 9.4% by end 2020. The CBO still expects a sort of V-shaped recovery in US GDP in 2021 but does not expect the pre-pandemic crisis trend in US economic growth (already reduced in the Long Depression since 2009) to be reached until 2029 and may not even return to the previous trend growth forecast until after 2030! So there will be a permanent loss of 5.3% in nominal GDP compared to pre-COVID forecasts – $16trn in value lost forever. In real GDP terms, the loss will be about 3% cumulatively, or $8trn in 2019 money.  And this assumes no second wave in the pandemic and no financial collapse as companies go bust.

Depression level unemployment

Although President Trump has celebrated the May employment gains, the fact is we continue to suffer depression level unemployment.  The following figure from the Washington Post provides some historical perspective.  The current official unemployment rate of 13.3 percent is more than a third higher than the highest level of unemployment reached during the Great Recession. 

But even the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges that because of the unique nature of the current crisis the official announced unemployment rate for each of the last three months is flawed.  The unemployment rate is based on household surveys.  For the past three months, in an attempt to better understand the impact of the coronavirus, interviewers were supposed to classify people not working because of the virus as “unemployed on temporary layoff.” However, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges, many of those people were incorrectly classified as “employed but absent at work,” which is the classification used when a person isn’t coming to work because of vacation, illness, bad weather, a labor dispute, or other reasons.  People in this latter category are not counted as unemployed.

The BLS has determined that correcting the classification error would boost the official April unemployment rate to 19.7 percent and the May rate to 16.3 percent.  And, it is important to note that this unemployment rate does not include those workers who have stopped looking for work and those who are involuntarily working part-time.  Including them would push the May rate close to 25 percent.  

Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to President Trump, has stated that the May job numbers take “a lot of the wind out of the sails of any phase 4 [stimulus bill] — we don’t need it now. There’s no reason to have a major spending bill. The sense of urgent crisis is very greatly dissipated by the report.”  This is crazy.

Danger signs ahead

There are three reasons to fear that without substantial new federal action May employment gains will be short-lived. 

First, it has been relatively low-wage production and nonsupervisory workers who have suffered the greatest number of job losses.  That has left many businesses relatively top-heavy with managers and high-income professionals. A number of business analysts are now predicting a new wave of layoffs or firings of higher-income and management personal to bring staffing levels back into pre-coronavirus balance.

The following figure shows that almost 90 percent of the jobs lost from mid-February to mid-April were in the six lowest paid supersectors as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The May employment gains were also in these six sectors.

Economists with Bloomberg Economics are now warning of a second wave of job losses that will include “higher-paid supervisors in sectors where frontline workers were hit first, such as restaurants and hotels. It also includes the knock on-effects to connected industries such as professional services, finance and real estate.”

As Bloomberg explains:

The pandemic isn’t finished with the U.S. labor market, threatening a second wave of job cuts—this time among white-collar workers. . . .

For the analysis, [Bloomberg Economics economists] looked at job losses by sector in March and April—with affected industries dominated by blue-collar, hospitality and production workers—and determined how those layoffs would move to supervisory positions, since management cuts tend to lag the frontline workers.

The economists then took government data on relations between industries to compute the ones most reliant on demand from the most-affected sectors. Combining that information with the hit to employment in the most affected sectors they extrapolated to other jobs at risk, most of which were higher-skilled, white-collar roles.

The second reason to downplay the significance of the May employment gains is that critically important stimulus measures–in particular the one-time grant of $1200 for individuals and the $600 a week additional unemployment benefit (which expires at the end of July)–appear unlikely to be renewed.  If that boost to earnings is withdrawn, economic demand and employment will likely fall again.

As Ben Casselman, writing in the New York Times, points out:

Research routinely finds that unemployment insurance is one of the most effective parts of the safety net, both in cushioning the effects of job loss on families and in lifting the economy. In economists’ parlance, the program is “well targeted” — it goes to people who need the money and who will spend it. Various studies have found that in the last recession, the system helped prevent 1.4 million foreclosures, saved two million jobs and kept five million people out of poverty.

The impact could be greater in this crisis because the program is reaching more people and giving them more money. The government paid $48 billion in benefits in April and has reached $86 billion in May, according to the Treasury Department.

As the following figure shows, almost all workers have suffered significant declines in employment income with low income workers taking the biggest hit.

Yet, the increase in food insecurity has been relatively small, especially for low income workers.

It is, as highlighted in the next figure, the massive individual benefit boosts included in the March stimulus package that has so far kept the decline in employment income from translating into dramatic spikes in food insecurity. If Congress refuses to pass a new stimulus that includes direct aid to the unemployed, the odds are great that the economic recovery will stall and unemployment will grow again.

The last reason for pessimism is the likely further contraction in state and local government spending and, by extension, employment and services, as a result of declining revenue.  State and local government employment fell by 1 million from February to April, and by an additional 600 million in May.  Looking just at state budgets, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates a shortfall in state budgets of $765 billion over fiscal years 2020-22, “much deeper than in the Great Recession of about a decade ago” (see the figure below).

And unfortunately, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities also notes, the federal government has, up to now, been unwilling to do much to help state governments manage their ballooning deficits:

Federal aid that policymakers provided in earlier COVID-19 packages isn’t nearly enough. Only about $65 billion is readily available to narrow state budget shortfalls. Treasury Department guidance now says that states may use some of the aid in the CARES Act of March to cover payroll costs for public safety and public health workers, but it’s unclear how much of state shortfalls that might cover; existing aid likely won’t cover much more than $100 billion of state shortfalls, leaving nearly $665 billion unaddressed. States hold $75 billion in their rainy-day funds, a historically high amount but far too little to meet the unprecedented challenge they face. And, even if states use all of it to cover their shortfalls, that still leaves them about $600 billion short.

States must balance their budgets every year, even in recessions. Without substantial federal help during this crisis, they very likely will deeply cut areas such as education and health care, lay off teachers and other workers in large numbers, and cancel contracts with many businesses. . . . That would worsen the recession, delay the recovery, and further harm families and communities.

Without a new stimulus measure that also includes support for state and local governments, their forced reduction in spending and cuts in employment can only add to the existing pressures working against recovery.

In sum, the crisis is real.  A new stimulus that included a renewal of special unemployment payments as well as direct support for state and local governments and other critical services like the postal service could help stabilize the economy.  But real progress will require a major effort on the part of the federal government to ensure adequate production of COVID-19 test kits and PPE as well as nationwide testing and contact tracing programs and then, most importantly, a fundamental reorganization of our economy.

Coronavirus: a return to normal is not good enough

We shouldn’t be satisfied with a return to normalcy. We need a “new normal.”

We are now in a recession, one triggered by government ordered closures of businesses producing nonessential goods and services, an action taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus. In response, Congress has approved three stimulus measures which legislators hope will keep the economy afloat until the virus is contained and companies can resume business as usual.

Many people, rightly criticizing the size, speed, and aims of these measures, have called for a new, improved stimulus package.  But what is getting far less attention, and may be the most important thing to criticize, is the notion that we should view a return to normalcy as our desired goal.  The fact is we also need a new economy.

The old normal only benefited a few

The media, even those critical of the Trump administration, all too often showcase economic experts who, while acknowledging the severity of the current crisis, reassure us that economic activity will return to normal before too long.  But since our economy increasingly worked to benefit a small minority, that is no cause for celebration.

Rarely mentioned is the fact that our economy was heading into a recession before the coronavirus hit. Or that living and working conditions for the majority of Americans were declining even during the past years of expansion. Or that the share of workers in low-wage jobs was growing over the last fifteen years.  Or that Americans are facing a retirement crisis.  Or that life expectancy fell from 2014 to 2017 because of the rise in mortality among young and middle-aged adults of all racial groups due to drug overdoses, suicides, and alcoholism.  If existing patterns of ownership and production remain largely unchanged, we face a future of ever greater instability, inequality, and poverty.

The economic crisis

The failings of our current system are only accentuated by the crisis. Many analysts are predicting an unprecedented one-quarter decline in GDP of 8 percent to 10 percent in the second quarter of this year.   The overall yearly decline may well be in the 5-7 percent range, the steepest annual drop in growth since 1946.

The unemployment rate is soaring and may reach 20 percent before the year is out.  A recent national survey found that 52 percent of workers under the age of 45 have already lost their job, been placed on leave, or had their hours cut because of the pandemic-caused downturn.

As a consequence, many people are finding it difficult to pay rent.  Survey results show that only 69 percent of renters paid their rent during the first week of April compared with over 80 percent during the first week of March.  And this includes renters who made partial payments.  Homeowners are not in much better shape.

Our unemployment insurance system has long been deficient: benefits are inadequate, last for only short period of time, and eligibility restrictions leave many workers uncovered. As of year-end 2019, the average unemployment insurance check was only $378 a week, the average duration of benefits was less than 15 weeks, and fewer than one-third of those unemployed were drawing benefits.

Now, the system is overwhelmed by people seeking to file new claims, leaving millions unable to even start their application process.  Although recent federal legislation allows states to expand their unemployment insurance eligibility and benefits, a very large share of those losing their jobs will find this part of our safety net not up to its assigned job.

A better crafted stimulus is needed

In response to the crisis, policy-makers have struggled to approve three so-called stimulus measures, the March 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act being the largest and most recent.  Unfortunately, these efforts have been disappointing.  For example, most of the provisions in the CARES Act include set termination dates untied to economic or health conditions. Approved spending amounts for individuals are also insufficient, despite the fact that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin believes the $1200 provided to most Americans as part of the CARES Act will be enough to tide them over for 10 weeks.

Also problematic is that not all CARE funds are directed to where they are most needed.  For example, no money was allocated to help states maintain their existing Medicaid program eligibility and benefit standards or expand health care coverage to uninsured immigrants and those who lose their job-based insurance.  And no money was allocated to state and local governments to help them maintain existing services in the face of declining tax revenues. Perhaps not surprisingly, the largest share of CARES approved spending is earmarked for corporate rescues without any requirement that the funds be used for saving jobs or wages.  In sum, we need another, better stimulus measure if we hope to minimize the social costs of our current crisis.

Creating a new normal

Even a better stimulus measure leaves our economy largely unchanged.  Yet, ironically, our perilous situation has encouraged countless expressions of social trust and solidarity that reveal ways to move forward to a more humane, egalitarian, and sustainable economy.  This starts with the growing recognition by many Americans that social solidarity, not competitive individualism, should shape our policies. People have demonstrated strong support for free and universal access to health care during this crisis, and we can build on that to push for an expansive Medicare for All health care system.  People also have shown great solidarity with the increasingly organized struggles of mail carriers, health care workers, bus drivers, grocery shoppers, cashiers, and warehouse workers to keep themselves safe while they brave the virus for our benefit.  We can build on that solidarity to push for new labor laws that strengthen the ability of all workers to form strong, democratic unions.

There is also growing support for putting social well-being before the pursuit of profit.  Many people have welcomed government action mandating that private corporations convert their production to meet social needs, such as the production of ventilators and masks.  We can build on this development to encourage the establishment of publicly owned and operated industries to ensure the timely and affordable production of critical goods like pharmaceuticals and health care equipment. And many people are coming to appreciate the importance of planning for future crises.  This appreciation can be deepened to encourage support for the needed transformation of our economy to minimize the negative consequences of the growing climate crisis.

We should not discount our ability to shape the future we want.