Chronicling Labor’s Crisis

Against the Current, No. 143, November/December 2009

Dan Clawson

The State of Working America 2008/2009
By Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholz
Economic Policy Institute/ILR Press/Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY. 461 pages, $24.95 paperback.

THE STATE OF Working America is the Bible of liberals, labor, and often of the left. Like the Bible, few people read it from cover to cover; like the Bible, it is often consulted to back up an argument. The latest, 2008/2009, edition contains a host of useful facts, statistics, analyses, and arguments, essentially all of it based on pre-crash information but with an awareness that some kind of crash was coming upon us.

The book is not a cover-to-cover read; probably only a dedicated reviewer does that. Not gracefully written, its value is the mountains of useful facts, tables and figures it provides, packed with the kind of information the liberal-left wants to know, pulled from a wide range of studies and data bases.

The authors know and make use of a range of studies, and even more important how to use databases to do original analyses. Even if you had all the needed computer and statistical skills, and free access to the relevant database, it would take you days to pull together the information in just one of their tables — and, unlike the authors, in doing your analyses you might not be aware of the quirks of each particular database, and why you need to be cautious about how they’ve defined a term.

And the authors don’t just have one table, but mountains of them — I checked the total in two sample chapters, which had 65 tables and 55 figures. The chapters cover family income, income-class mobility, wages, jobs, wealth, poverty, health, and international comparisons. This is not a “bury them with random facts” collection. The data are carefully selected to answer the interesting questions, based on some politics and thought about how the data ought to be presented to answer the questions that matter (to progressives).

A brief review of a book so packed with information can’t possibly cover the full gamut, so what I present is selective, intended to give a sampling of what’s available.

Deepening Inequalities

Start with the union premium, the extra boost that workers get for being in a union. You can get some basic facts from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, but The State of Working America 2008/2009 goes much further. They calculate the union wage premium “computed to reflect differences in hourly wages between union and non-union workers who are otherwise comparable in experience, education, region, industry, occupation, and marital status.” (200)

They not only present the overall premium (14.1%), but also detail breakdowns by race and gender, wherein we learn that unions raise wages more for men than for women, more for Latinos, Blacks and Asians than for whites, more for new immigrants (who have been in the United States less than 10 years) than for longterm immigrants.

A separate table provides a detailed breakdown in benefits: union members are 28.2% more likely to have health insurance, 53.9% more likely to have a pension, 36.1% more likely to have defined benefit pensions, and get 26.6% more vacation weeks. Together that information is four pages in a 400-page book, which gives you some sense of how massive a reference this is.

Or consider health care. The United States spends the most on health care of any country in the world, but our results are at best mediocre when compared to other relatively affluent countries. Not surprisingly, the rich live longer than the poor. Like many other indicators, that gap has grown since the rise of neoliberalism: in 1980 the gap was 2.8 years; by 2000 it was 4.5 years (335; see also table on page 343).

On infant mortality: in 1979 the U.S. record (compared to other affluent countries) was mediocre, and we’ve lowered infant mortality since then. But other countries have lowered it much more, so by 2005 the United States had the worst record of any of the OECD (affluent) countries. (353)

Although we often hear about the number of people without insurance at any one point in time, Mishel, Bernstein and Shierholz note that over a three-year period more than a third of the non-elderly were without insurance for at least one month. (340) From 1999 to 2007 workers’ wages went up by 24%, but health insurance premiums increased by 115%. (336) “In 2007, the total cost of the average employer-provided health insurance premium for family plans was $12,106, with an average of $8,824 paid for directly by the working family.” (348)

Almost 20% of the U.S. population spends more than 10% of their after-tax incomes on health care premiums and purchases of health goods and services. (349)

Or consider college. Put bluntly but a bit simplistically, a dumb rich kid is more likely to graduate from college than a smart poor kid. More carefully: a child from a low-income family, who is able to overcome various obstacles and get high test scores, has a 29% chance of completing college; a child from a high-income family with low test scores has a 30% chance of completing college. (The child with high test scores from a high-income family has a 74% chance of completing college; all data from page 115.)

The State of Working America 2008/2009 provides an exhaustive analysis of wages, presenting the situation from many different perspectives. In 2006, incomes were the most unequal they had ever been, with one exception (1928!); the top 1% received 23% of total income. (44, 94) In the 1970s the top 1% received roughly the same proportion of total income as they had in 1947; once neoliberalism kicked in the rich started getting a higher and higher proportion of total income. (123)

Men did worse than women; in 2007 their median real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) incomes were 4.4% lower than they had been in 1979, and about the same as they had been in 1973. (135)  Across the board women increased their incomes, with the biggest gains going to the highest-wage women (137-138), but women’s incomes are still significantly lower than men’s.

Older people did better than younger: “In real terms, the income level of families headed by a 25-34-year old was about the same in 2007 as in 1979, while that of families headed by a 45-54-year old was up about 15%.” (55)  Those with more education did better than those with less: “Over the entire 1979-2007 period the simple story is that the greater the education level of the group, the more wages rose.” (164)

The Shrinking Public Pie

The authors don’t just tell the left what it wants to hear. As one example, people on the left often say that taxes have only been cut for the rich, not for the working class. Mishel, Bernstein and Shierholz present data to show that “every income group pays a smaller share of its income in federal taxes today than in years past.” (72)

It is true that those at the top benefited most, but working-class people also received visible material benefits from tax cuts (although they may have lost more in services than they gained in tax cuts). The reality of course explains why the public sector is so starved for resources.

The points presented above just scratch the surface; The State of Working America 2008/2009 contains vast quantities of data on a range of other topics. It doesn’t cover everything: it’s light on race and immigration issues, and it examines almost none of the data relevant to making a case for single-payer health care — for example there is nothing on U.S. insurance company profits or administrative inefficiencies.

The writing is sometimes awkward. The captions to tables are sometimes misleading or flat-out inaccurate, and you need to read the surrounding text to figure out what data the table is actually presenting. What seems to me to be the same issue may be addressed at three or four different points in the book, each saying much the same thing, but all needed to get the complete picture.

Yet with all those caveats, there is nothing else that provides as much useful data on as many important issues, and does so in ways sensitive to the concerns of labor and liberals (although not necessarily of the left, as the single-payer example illustrates). Any union with the most minimal reference collection, any group that sometimes needs to present evidence (in a leaflet, a report, a training), any person involved in research, ought to have a copy of the book on hand.

ATC 143, November-December 2009