[Marxism] Why American Workers Without Much Education Are Being Hammered

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 23 06:32:14 MDT 2015

NY Times, Apr. 23 2015
Why American Workers Without Much Education Are Being Hammered
by Neil Irwin

The last couple of decades have been terrible for American workers 
without much education. New research calculates just how bad, and offers 
some evidence as to why that is.

In short, they face a double whammy. Less-educated Americans, especially 
men, are shifting away from manufacturing and other jobs that once 
offered higher pay, and a higher share are now working in lower-paying 
food service, cleaning and groundskeeping jobs. Simultaneously, pay 
levels are declining in almost all of the fields that employ 
less-educated workers, so even those who have held onto jobs as 
manufacturers, operators and laborers are making less than they would 
have a generation ago.

Perhaps the single most shocking number in a new review of employment 
and earnings data by researchers at the Hamilton Project, a research 
group within the Brookings Institution, is this one: The median earnings 
of working men aged 30 to 45 without a high school diploma fell 20 
percent from 1990 to 2013 when adjusted for inflation.

A group of people not earning much to begin with, in other words, has 
seen earnings plummet to $25,500 in 2013 from $31,900 in 1990 (both 
numbers are in 2013 dollars). Men with a high school diploma did only a 
little better, with a 13 percent decline in median earnings over the 
same span. Women did better than men, but it has been no era of riches 
for less-educated women either; those without a high school diploma saw 
a 12 percent decline in median earnings, and those with a high school 
diploma or some college a 3 percent gain.

Men age 30 to 45 who are employed at the time of census survey and 
worked 750 or more hours over the previous year.
Source: Hamilton Project analysis of Census data
The difficulties of American workers, and especially those with low 
levels of education, have been well documented. What makes the latest 
analysis, by Melissa S. Kearney, Brad Hershbein and Elisa Jácome, 
interesting is in some ways its simplicity. They focused on a slice of 
census data that avoids some of the more contentious dimensions of these 

They are using data over a relatively long period, 23 years, that 
includes three recessions and three recoveries, so the results should be 
little affected by exactly where we stand within the economic cycle. 
They focus on people between ages 30 and 45, so the numbers shouldn’t be 
much affected if people choose to stay in school longer or retire 
earlier. They focus only on those who worked at least 750 hours during 
the year, sidestepping the debate over whether millions of Americans who 
have left the work force are doing so voluntarily or because they don’t 
think there are good job opportunities available to them.

There are two common stories for why this has been such a hard couple of 
decades for less-educated American workers.

First, there is the decline of the number of jobs in manufacturing and 
other industries that once paid less-skilled workers good wages, a 
result of technology and globalization. Second, there are changing norms 
around worker pay and the workplace — less union power, for example, a 
lower minimum wage when adjusted for inflation, and a culture in 
corporate America of cutting labor costs to the bone.

It would be dangerous to read too much into a relatively simple 
crunching of census data, but the Hamilton Project numbers offer some 
evidence for both.

First, there really is a shift away from the sectors where less-educated 
workers can earn a decent living. In 1990, 40 percent of the prime-age 
male workers without a high school degree worked as operators and 
laborers, a number that declined to 34 percent in 2013. Jobs in food 
service, cleaning and groundskeeping nearly doubled in the same span, to 
21 percent from 11 percent. But it wasn’t an even trade: Pay for 
operators and labors was $25,500 in 2013, compared with $20,400 for the 
food, cleaning and groundskeeping category.

You’re not imagining it. The jobs that are being created for 
less-educated workers really do pay less than the ones that are being 
lost. That suggests that globalization and technological change — the 
shifts that are making those machine operator jobs fewer and farther 
between — are a factor in depressed wages.

But the shift in occupational categories, the researchers found, 
accounts for only about a third of the decline in pay for men without a 
high school degree and one-sixth of the decline for those with a degree. 
A bigger effect is downward pressure on pay in jobs held by 
low-education workers across the board.

So not only did people shift from higher-paying fields to lower-paying 
ones, but inflation-adjusted pay also fell in all of those jobs. For 
example, production work — manufacturing, largely — was the 
highest-paying category for men without a high school diploma in 2013, 
paying them $28,000. But that sector was both smaller (29 percent of 
such workers, down from 31 percent) and paid less (down from $33,600) 
than it did in 1990.

The drop in pay across the board for low-education workers hints more at 
some of those factors around employers’ bargaining power and practices. 
Both factors could come into play, though. For example, perhaps a rise 
in automation and globalization is eliminating manufacturing jobs, and 
the people who once held those jobs are now competing for work as 
janitors and food preparers, and the additional supply is helping to 
depress wages in those fields.

“One thing that’s always bothered me about the political debate is 
people want to say either it’s globalization and technology, or it’s 
institutions,” said Ms. Kearney, who is director of the Hamilton Project 
and a professor at the University of Maryland. “But of course it’s both.”

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