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We need not just jobs, but jobs that pay

By Barbara Ehrenreich, Special to CNN
  • Barbara Ehrenreich says most Americans worry more about jobs deficit than budget deficit
  • She says 14 million unemployed, but it's not enough to get them jobs -- they need decent pay
  • She says years of gutting unions has meant there's less power to lift wages
  • Ehrenreich: Obama disappointing on labor issues, but some workers are starting to organize

Editor's note: Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (Macmillan) has just been released in a 10th-anniversary edition with a new afterword by the author.

(CNN) -- Everyone to the left of Michele Bachmann seems to agree that America's most immediate problem isn't the budget deficit, but the jobs deficit.

Fourteen million Americans are unemployed, and the number ranges up to almost 16 million if you include those who want full-time jobs but can only find part-time ones. Put all those people to work, and they will cheerfully run out to the malls and spend, thus reigniting the engine of consumer capitalism. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

But just how many jobs will the economy have to generate to cure the jobs deficit -- 14 million? Sixteen million? Or a whole lot more? The answer depends not just on the number of people out of work but on the quality of jobs being offered.

According to a January report from the National Employment Law Project, 76% of the new jobs generated in 2010 were of the low-paying variety, offering between $9 to $15 an hour. Some people can get by quite handily on $9 or so an hour -- especially if they're willing to live outdoors or on a friend's couch -- but, generally speaking, the less jobs pay, the more of them you're going to need to get.

Suppose you're a parking lot attendant, a dishwasher or an office cleaner, and you earn only the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. If you have two children to support, your annual earnings will be $3,000 below the official poverty level for a family of three, so you'll need at least a part-time second job. Not to mention the fact that you'll need to designate one of your children as a full-time baby sitter for the other.

Having worked in several low-paid jobs myself, I get a little nervous when people start throwing around the word "jobs" unmodified by adjectives such as "decent-paying" or "good." What kind of jobs are we talking about? Are we talking about jobs with union-style wages and benefits or big-box McJobs that come with the assumption that you'll qualify for food stamps?

Between 1998 and 2000, while doing research for my book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America," I worked as a waitress, a maid with a cleaning service, a nursing home aide and a Walmart associate, with my pay averaging $7 an hour, or the equivalent of about $9 an hour in today's dollars. Even when I managed to line up my schedule so I could work two jobs at a time, discretionary spending wasn't on the agenda -- not after gas, food and rent for a half-size trailer or a room in a shabby residential motel. Fortunately, jobs were easy to find at the time, and the soaring dot-com economy wasn't depending on me.

I know the argument: The more jobs there are, even low-paying, the more power workers have to demand higher wages, so wages will automatically rise. But in the late '90s, while employers were experiencing a "labor shortage," hourly wages rose only slightly -- not because the law of supply and demand had been suspended, but because employers had become fiendishly efficient at preventing workers from organizing to demand higher wages. Today, with the very concept of collective bargaining under political attack from the right, the chance that more jobs will mean better jobs has grown even slimmer.

President Barack Obama promised -- just three years ago when he was in general a more promising sort of fellow -- that he would raise the federal minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011. Maybe he forgot, just as he forgot his promise to press for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to organize. Or maybe he was intimidated by unemployment rates in excess of 9% and accepted the defeatist notion that any job -- no matter how low-paid, backbreaking or abusive -- is better than none.

That's been the sad trajectory of the American middle-class spirit from the late '70s to the present day: We've gone from Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It" to begging the sleek-suited "job creators" for whatever they can throw our way.

Fortunately there are some courageous exceptions to this idea. Forty-five thousand Verizon employees are walking picket lines to defend their hard-won union wages and benefits. Thousands of Walmart employees have signed up as members of an association ("Our Walmart") to demand respect from the company.

Even the most isolated and "invisible" workers -- nannies and maids -- are organizing themselves into a National Domestic Workers Alliance. As anyone in these groups could you tell: We don't just need more jobs, we need more jobs that treat employees like humans and pay what you could actually live on.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barbara Ehrenreich.