The Republican Party has exploited the simple word “jobs” with calculation to tout its success in helping the American worker. Democrats should stop playing to this fiction. For many, the “job” of yesterday bears little resemblance to the job of today. It’s used to perpetuate the myth that all is well with America, because jobs are up and unemployment is down. That the Republicans would mischaracterize the economic well-being of Americans by ignoring the obvious distress of the middle class is no surprise. What is troubling is that even the New York Times and our Democratic candidates have fallen into this trap. The “jobs” or “unemployment” statistics so casually flaunted as confounding indicators of our economic health are no more relevant to the economic position of the middle class today than the birth rate of horses is to our transportation indices.
We know the American life that, just 30 years ago, allowed many workers to raise a family, buy a house and retire comfortably, has evaporated. “Jobs” have not. This is because our society has gradually changed our relationship with work and our employers so that the “job” tracked in 1980 bears little resemblance to that of 2019. However, we haven’t changed the definition. The employment index is defined by asking a respondent if they worked one hour in the week of the survey. In the 1970s and ‘80s, when people were mostly working one full-time job, this statistic represented something quite different, in terms of middle-class economic health, than the more-likely minimum wage, part-time and without benefits “job” of today. In the aggregate, this difference renders the word “job” incomparable from one decade to the next. We glorify our low unemployment rate without noting a worker who was documented as “employed” in a fulltime, benefited, union job in 1975, is documented exactly the same as someone working three jobs (or one-part-time) with no benefits, today.
As long as our Democratic candidates keep paying homage to “low unemployment” and high stock market indices, even if they then give a nod to the families who are not doing so well, we are playing to the Republicans’ playbook.
Our Federal government should publish an economic indicator for the rest of us—one that measures the percent of Americans who work full-time, can support their family, pay their rent, go on vacation and retire comfortably. When the unemployment rate for that indicator is 3.5%, we’ll all cheer. Until then, I’d rather follow the number of horses born than the percent of people “employed.”