Underemployed and Underpaid

Almost a month ago, the NY Times had an article that really caught my eye: “Many American Workers Are Underemployed and Underpaid – NYTimes.com.”  It’s not the most uplifting article, but it stood out because many of my friends and former colleagues fall into that category.  Yes, I realize that being “between jobs” (as is my condition these days) is what grabs headlines, and those looking for work often say they will “do anything” if only someone would offer them a job.

I completely understand the sentiment of wanting to get something going rather than applying for job after job each day on the Internet — and then hoping the phone rings or an email comes your way asking you to come in for an interview.  The anxiety of not knowing where the next paycheck is going to come from (and trying to make a dollar stretch on unemployment insurance) is something that does not fill anyone with joy.  In short, to all those who think that people collecting UI payments are a bunch of lazy slackers who just lack the motivation to find a job, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

Are there people who are slackers and make it their job to live off the dole?  Sure.  Just like there are corporations whose CEOs tout free market libertarianism while bidding for government contracts.  Some people are hypocrites and scammers…people who game a system to their advantage in a way that skirts legal and ethical lines.  It’s just part of being human.  But another part of being human is being ethical and playing by the rules, and those are the people who are often in jobs where they are underemployed and underpaid.  I supposed the good news is that it has been my experience that most people fall into the latter category and frown up those in the former.

But it’s the people who “do the job” (and are losing ground year after year) are the ones who are also anxious about their financial security — or as one of the key ‘graphs in the NY Times article stated:

Others find pay that is simply not keeping up with their expenses: adjusted for inflation, the median hourly wage was lower in 2011 than it was a decade earlier, according to data from a forthcoming book by theEconomic Policy Institute, “The State of Working America, 12th Edition.” Good benefits are harder to come by, and people are staying longer in jobs that they want to leave, afraid that they will not be able to find something better.

I wonder how many read what’s above and say: “Yep. That’s pretty much me.”  It’s not just pay, but the cost of living.  As the price for goods and services go up (and that includes the cost of “The best healthcare system in the world”), wages are simply not keeping pace.  You pay more for groceries, you pay more for health insurance, you pay more this and that, but when you take stock of the amount of money in your paycheck, you get depressed.  Many Americans used to fill their wage gap by using credit, but that’s not an option anymore.  Indeed, the reality is that no amount of tax cuts will fill the gap between income and expenses. Plus, you have the additional problem of when you lower the tax rate, it gets harder and harder for the government (state and federal) to offer the services the voters say they want (but have been conditioned for the last 30 years to avoid paying for them).  That’s a post for another time, however.

Well, what to do?  Clearly the answer is to get more people working.  The more the unemployment rate goes down, the better is it for wages, and that means people will feel like they can “get ahead.” By “getting ahead” I mean they can do things like save for their kids’ college fund, maybe go on a vacation, upgrade their living conditions (i.e., trade up to better digs), sock away money for retirement…you know, try to have a middle class life by paying for it as you go with a living wage.

Low unemployment also means that workers will have more leverage for their working conditions, their treatment on the job, being promoted, and the like.  Why? Because if they can’t get a fair deal out of employer X, they just might from employer Y – who may be desperate for workers.  Of course many companies hate this stuff because it means they can’t control their workers with fear of economic uncertainty.  Add to that the fact that the ACA/Obamacare will give workers more freedom to move on from jobs that have held them captive because of fear of losing benefits, and that means a more mobile workforce.

Workers who have better pay and more options for less dependence on a crappy job is one reason you get a lot of screaming from the corporate right about socialism, fascism, and loss of liberty.  Well, if you’re stuck at a low paying job that you’re clearly overqualified/underpaid for because there aren’t many opportunities to move on, or you have the reality of loss of health benefits hanging over your head, how is that not an infringement on a worker’s liberties?

But you know what? It’s not all about making a buck. Sure, it’s a very important part of life, but so is one’s happiness in doing a job — which is something I wrote about in a previous post.

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