National Edition

Does American policy value work?

Published: Wednesday, May 7 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

From left, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., discuss their legislative agenda with reporters during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Raising the minimum wage, pay inequity, and other issues affecting the middle class are at the heart of their “fair shot for everyone” plan.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Julie Williams is looking for a job — the last one she had was at an escrow service. That was almost 20 years ago. Since then, the 38-year-old from Parker, Colorado, has been working as a stay-at-home mom to her five children.

She and her husband both have college degrees, but Williams' husband lost his job with a wealth management firm in the financial downturn in 2008, and spent a few years looking for new work and trying to start a business. There were several years of struggle, and even though her husband now has a great job with an IT company, things are tighter than she would like. "Even just $150 a week would make a difference," she says, especially if they decide to buy a second car and take on a car payment.

Thirty years ago, the majority of families with children had only one parent working outside the home. Now, two-thirds of couples with kids require a double income to pay the bills.

However, a number of things work against these families: income phase-outs for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and extra costs like child care and transportation can be a burden when both parents work. In some cases, these realities discourage job-seekers like Williams because it's hard to get ahead with a second job, when it requires extra costs of day care or a second car.

It can be a tough time for workers and would-be workers in America, where incomes slid during the recession, and remain 8.3 percent lower than they were in 2007.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. recently introduced the 21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act that favors a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour and champions other factors to Americans at the bottom of the income structure earn more. Can a new focus on work help working American families get ahead?

The ways we think about work

The idea that if you work hard and keep your nose clean you can succeed is part of American culture, says Princeton psychology professor Susan Fiske, who studies attitudes about social class. But the reality is that it's hard for many Americans to rise above their circumstances.

At least 10 million people in America are working and still live below the official U.S. poverty line — about $18,530 a year for a mom and two kids, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. People in the service industry, farmers, construction workers and sales people make up a lot of America's working poor.

"Unfortunately, these cultural myths are less true than we would like to believe," says Fiske. Americans like to identify themselves as middle class, but mostly are split between working class and middle class, with 10-20 percent in the extremes.

"Our collective belief is that America offers opportunity, so the system is fair. In a meritocracy, people get what they deserve" says Fiske. But the reality is that people's ability to move above their parents' social class is limited, and no better than in many other countries, she says. About a third of Americans rise above their parents' social class, a third stay the same, and a third move down.

E.J. Dionne, Brookings fellow and professor of government at Georgetown University, ties these attitudes to policy and a reluctance toward moves like raising the minimum wage, when policymakers emphasize the "flaws of the unemployed themselves rather than the cost of economic injustice," writes Dionne.

We have a need to explain the unequal status quo, according to Fiske, and explaining away the poor's misfortunes by assuming that they are lazy allows one to dismiss them.

"When a group is unfortunate, we have a tendency to blame them rather than see situational things that make it difficult for them," she says.

Policy solutions

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS