Struggling to survive: The reality of living in a precarious economy

Valerie Carter, University of Maine. Originally published in Bangor Daily News October 11, 2017.

Maine workers and communities have become well acquainted with the disappearance of good jobs in recent decades. From the loss of textile and shoe industries, to the shutdowns of paper mills, which once supported entire communities, many Mainers who once had decent jobs have seen their family’s economic well-being plummet, as they struggle to get by doing irregular or low-wage work.

A number of global changes – technological innovation, international competition, a growing global labor force, job off-shoring, and the shifting of risks to workers – have made it more difficult for Americans to land a stable full-time job with benefits, good wages, and job security. As a result, people in Maine and elsewhere are facing conditions of “precariousness”; and difficulties in meeting their basic needs.

Such precariousness has real consequences: the family with two low-wage jobs who have gone without hot water or heat for months because they cannot afford to replace their boiler; the family who experienced eviction and temporary homelessness when the husband lost his skilled job, and engaged in a year-long job search while his wife was sidelined first by an injury, then a life-threatening major illness; the part-time worker who endures terrible pain from an infected tooth because he cannot find an affordable dentist.

In his 2001 book “The Future of Success,” former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich described the changing nature of work in the U.S., especially the shift away from the “standard employment contract.” As he described it, “fewer working people are ‘employees,’ as that term was used through most of the twentieth century – and in the future there will be fewer still.”

Reich describes how the mid-20th century economic “Golden Era” of stable employment for U.S. workers, lasting roughly three decades after World War II, came to be seen as the norm. But with major economic shifts beginning in the 1970s, from a global energy crisis to the rise of neoliberalism, deregulation, and “trickle down” economics, the U.S. economy entered a new era of global competition. U.S. workers found themselves competing in a global labor force. As employers have increasingly turned to contingent workers – temporary, contractual, and outside of the core firm – full-time stable jobs have become a thing of the past for many workers.

In a BDN column last year, I discussed the problem of low-wage jobs in Maine. While adequate income is critical for one’s well-being, the growth of contingent work is another factor making life more precarious for Maine’s workers and families.

It is difficult to get an accurate count of contingent workers in Maine and the U.S., especially because official labor market statistics exclude some categories of workers. A recent analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office came up with an astonishing estimate — that roughly 40 percent of the U.S. workforce were working in contingent jobs as of 2010 (up from 35 percent in 2006). This number includes workers in several “alternative work arrangements”: core contingent workers (agency temporary workers, on-call workers, and contract company workers), independent contractors, self-employed workers and “standard part-time workers.”

Contingent workers, since they are not in a traditional employer-employee relationship, are less likely to have access to employer-provided benefits, such health insurance. Also they may not be covered by important workforce protection laws. Although some contingent workers are independent contractors by choice, many others must settle for part-time or temporary work because they cannot find full-time stable jobs with benefits.

The problems faced by contingent workers call out for rethinking our social policies, in Maine and in the U.S. In a country with unaffordable health care, and a state refusing to extend Medicaid benefits, losing a job with health benefits can be a life-or-death matter. In a state where the economic safety net is being steadily reduced, being unemployed or forced to work in a low-paying contingent job results in hungry families, who must constantly prove their eligibility for SNAP benefits (“food stamps”) by time-consuming and humiliating means-testing.

Finally, individuals and families who are facing economic hardships through no fault of their own, and who are doing their best to get by, should be supported and respected, rather than seen as pariahs who are taking advantage of tax-paying people with good jobs. In today’s precarious economy, the person with a good stable job this month might find themselves in line for food stamp benefits next month. Think about this the next time you are in line at the supermarket, or the next time you see a homeless person pushing a cart with all of their belongings.

Valerie J. Carter, is a research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the nationalScholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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