A Vision for a High-Wage America

Source: Michael McCormack and Jeff Madrick, The Century Foundation, October 16, 2017
From the summary:
America has deliberately chosen to be a low-wage society since the 1970s. This status was not thrust upon it inevitably by technological change or globalization, but instead was the result of deliberate policy choices made over the years. America likewise has the ability to reverse course, pursuing a policy agenda that would put it back on the path toward a high-wage economy. ….

…. This report provides an overview of the current state of the U.S. economy, characterized by a sluggish recovery, stagnant living standards, inequality, increasingly volatile and uncertain incomes, especially for low-income Americans, persistent poverty, and declining benefits. Our review below of the economic data and literature will demonstrate the persistence of reduced opportunity and a low-wage America for millions since the 1970s.

The report also explores the deliberate policy choices that led to the low-wage economy that developed in the late 1970s and was solidified by the 1980s and 1990s. There was only a brief reprieve during the full-employment economy of the late 1990s, when wage growth lifted wages for all income levels; even during this time, anti-inflationary monetary policy reduced the bargaining power of workers relative to capital.

After reviewing the political and academic influences that created a low-wage America, the report proposes alternative policy choices to build a high-wage America that extends prosperity to a broader range of workers. The three main pillars of a high-wage economy identified in this report—public investment and industrial policy, education and training, and labor standards and social supports—will guide the Rediscovering Government Initiative’s research and event agendas in the coming months, as it seeks to build an agenda that can return American workers to prosperity…..

What You Should Know

  • Between 1973 and 2015, productivity increased by 73.4 percent, but hourly compensation increased by only 11.1 percent. And that meager wage growth has happened mostly at the top of the income scale. Since the late 1970s, wage growth has stopped for the eightieth percentile of earners on down, and for much of the wage distribution, earnings have actually fallen.
  • Deliberate policy choices since the 1970s have contributed to this wage stagnation, including the attack on labor unions, cuts to social programs, tight monetary policy, tax cuts and free-market economic policies.
  • U.S. manufacturing work is particularly underpaid when compared to other nations. Manufacturing workers in the United States ranked eighteenth out of twenty-seven OECD nations with available data.
    The high-wage agenda requires new approaches to directly confront underemployment and unemployment that may include government acting as an employer of last resort and support for labor organizing, which is now actively thwarted.
  • Rebuilding the nation’s apprenticeship system that still only reaches less than half a million workers, and translating promising high school career academies into respected vocational and career education system that, among other things, can create inclusive access to well-paid skilled blue collar jobs.