Decent paying jobs still elusive

Despite Bush administration claims that there’s an economic recovery underway, the latest employment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics offer a grim picture for several key categories of workers.

• Older workers. For workers under age 55, job growth has been close to zero in the last two years, and the unemployment rate has grown. But workers 55 and older have the lowest unemployment rate of any age group, and they have gained 3 million jobs in the same period. This doesn’t mean that older workers are doing well. Economist Dean Baker explains, “Older workers, especially women, are apparently being driven back into the labor force by rising drug costs and shrinking stock portfolios.” Many are also being forced to work to help support their grandchildren and great grandchildren, when young parents cannot find jobs that can support their families.

• Younger workers. For teenagers, the situation is incredibly grim. Officially, unemployment for the 16-19 age group has increased from 15.4 percent to 17.1 percent in the last two years. But there are a million fewer teens working today – a job loss equal to more than 6 percent of the entire teen population.

It would be nice to think that a million more teens are staying in high school, or going to college with full-tuition grants and scholarships. It would be nice to think that these additional million kids in school don’t need part-time (or full-time) jobs to support themselves and their families. But you are reading this on planet Earth, in the USA, and George Bush is the president.

If we assume that teenagers need money and would be willing to work for it just as much today as they were two years ago, then their real unemployment this October was not the official rate of 17.1 percent, but 27.5 percent – almost double the 15.4 percent from the same month of 2001. And unemployment for African American and Latino teens is twice as high again.

• Manufacturing. Amidst the 126,000 job gain in October, manufacturing lost 24,000 jobs, passing 40 months of continuous job loss. Manufacturing jobs have a reputation for being “good jobs” – paying relatively well and with decent benefits. This reputation was achieved over a century of union struggles, and even at the best of times, plenty of manufacturing jobs were nonunion, unsafe and exhausting, with low pay and few benefits. But it is the better, union manufacturing jobs that have suffered the biggest losses. With them, the entire working class is losing a force that pulls up all jobs in the economy, and a base of union strength that benefits all workers.

• Government jobs. This October, there were 55,000 fewer government jobs than a year ago, for an 0.3 percent decline. The big losers were federal workers, with a job loss of 52,000 (1.9 percent). This follows the 4.4 percent federal jobs growth the previous year, during the post-9/11 buildup, when airport security screeners became government workers.

At the state level, employment dropped by 29,000 (0.6 percent), in the wake of deep fiscal crises. With many states continuing to come up short in this year’s budget, and most one-time revenue sources (like tobacco and “rainy day” funds) already used up, there is unlikely to be a turnaround any time soon.

Local governments – cities, towns, counties, villages, etc. – account for well over half of all government workers. Their workforce has grown by an almost-invisible 26,000 (0.2 percent) in the last year. Local budgets are not affected by the recession as quickly as state governments, but are bound to suffer as Congress and state legislators keep pushing more costs down to the next lower level. There is also wide variation, with many poor cities and rural communities, heavily dependent on federal and state funds, already making deep cuts in their workforce.

Of course, there are two groups of government jobs that are not included in this discussion. The employment figures provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics include only civilian, non-institutional jobs. Left out of the figures are military personnel and civilian prison inmates – the big growth opportunities for young people today.

The author can be reached at economics@cpusa.org.