The devalued American worker

The devalued American worker

The past three recessions sparked a chain reaction of layoffs and lower pay

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Published on December 14, 2014

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Midway through the last game of the 2013 Carolina League season, after he’d swept peanut shells and mopped soda off the concourse, Ed Green lumbered upstairs to the box seats to dump the garbage.

Green was already 12 hours into his workday. He rose at dawn to lay tar on the highway. As the sun sank, he switched uniforms and drove to BB&T Ballpark, where he runs the custodial crew for a minor-league baseball team. Now it was dark and his radio was crackling. It was his boss, asking him to head back downstairs. Green walked onto the first-base line and into a surprise. In front of 6,000 fans, the Winston-Salem Dash honored him as the team’s employee of the year.

The crowd applauded. The game resumed. Green walked back upstairs. The trash wasn’t going to empty itself.

ABOUT THIS SERIES:

Liftoff & Letdown: The American middle class is floundering, and it has been for decades. The Post examines the mystery of what’s gone wrong and shows what the country must focus on to get the economy working for everyone again.

Chapter 1: Why America’s middle class is lost
Chapter 3: The skills trap that keeps people poor
Chapter 4: A black hole for our best and brightest
Chapter 5: What’s killing entrepreneurship?
Chapter 6: What went wrong, and how to fix it

Green once held a middle-class job. Now, to make enough money to send his children to college, he works the equivalent of two full-time jobs: one maintaining highways for the state of North Carolina and one ushering fans and collecting trash for a variety of sports teams around Winston-Salem.

The American economy has stopped delivering the broadly shared prosperity that the nation grew accustomed to after World War II. The explanation for why that is begins with the millions of middle-class jobs that vanished over the past 25 years, and with what happened to the men and women who once held those jobs.

Millions of Americans are working harder than ever just to keep from falling behind; Green is one of them. Those workers have been devalued in the eyes of the economy, pushed into jobs that pay them much less than the ones they once had.

Today, a shrinking share of Americans are working middle-class jobs, and collectively, they earn less of the nation’s income than they used to. In 1981, according to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of American adults were classified as “middle income” — which means their household income was between two-thirds and double the nation’s median income. By 2011, it was down to 51 percent. In that time, the “middle” group’s share of the national income pie fell from 60 percent to 45 percent.

For that, you can blame the past three recessions, which sparked a chain reaction of layoffs and lower pay.

Millions of American jobs disappeared during the 1990, 2001 and 2008 recessions. That’s what happens in recessions. But for decades after World War II, lost jobs came back when the economy picked up again. These times, they didn’t. And it was a particular sort of job that disappeared permanently in those downturns, economists from Duke University and the University of British Columbia have found: jobs that companies could easily outsource overseas or replace with a machine.

Economists call those jobs “middle-skill” jobs. They include a lot of factory work — the country is down about 5.5 million manufacturing jobs since 1990, according to the Labor Department — but also a lot of clerical and sales tasks that can be handled easily from a country where workers make a fraction of what they make here.

In 1979, middle-skill jobs accounted for 57 percent of the jobs in the U.S. economy, according to calculations by David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By 2009, the share was down to 46 percent. If the share had not changed over those 30 years — if it had stayed at 1979 levels — there would be 15 million more middle-skill jobs in America today.

When middle-skill jobs vanish, those workers must either take low-skill jobs or compete for the fewer middle-skill jobs left. That extra competition pushes down everybody’s pay, as Ed Green has discovered.

Ed Green works several jobs but still doesn't earn as much as he used to as a bus driver in New York. LEFT: Green clears a foggy windshield at the beginning of his shift with the North Carolina Department of Transportation in Winston-Salem. RIGHT: Green works security at a Wake Forest basketball game.

Green’s state job pays about $12 an hour. His sports jobs pay about $9 an hour, which is decent money for anyone who works at a minor-league or college stadium. Green’s wife works full time as a social worker for a small salary. Between them, they clock between 110 and 120 hours a week on average. All those hours allow them to earn what a typical American family earned 25 years ago, after adjusting for inflation.

The average two-parent American family earned 23 percent more in 2009 than it did in 1973, after adjusting for inflation. That’s because people in those families are working more hours — 26 percent more than in 1973 on average. Take away the extra time on the job and wages haven’t gone up at all for the median family in more than 40 years, even though workers have grown more productive.

That wage stagnation ripples through the economy. Workers who earn less than they used to have less money to spend in town, less time to spend helping their kids in school, less cushion to take a risk and start a business. Economic research shows a thriving middle class fosters entrepreneurs and economic mobility — the places with the largest middle classes are also the ones where it’s easiest for children who grow up poor to climb out of poverty as adults.

Green grew up in the middle class, the son of a New York City bus driver. He also went on to drive a bus, after he dropped out of technical school, got married and started having kids. He was earning $68,000 a year in a union job and was on track to retire with full benefits.

But cancer struck his mother, who had moved to North Carolina after Green’s father died. Green moved his family there to help care for her, and he went looking for the sort of good-paying factory job that powered the Carolina economy for a long time. It was 2000, and as Green was about to discover, America’s middle-class job machine was starting to sputter.

Since the turn of the millennium, North Carolina has been an epicenter of a phenomenon economists call “hollowing out.” Simply put, it’s the disappearance of jobs that require some training and technical mastery, including work in factories, call centers and secretarial pools.

Ed Green takes the recycling to the curb after serving as an usher at his church in Winston-Salem, N.C. Green does custodial work for the church in addition to several other jobs. Of his labor, Green said: “I try to set an example. No shortcuts.”

Green’s first job in North Carolina was at a battery factory, where he earned $12 an hour. He found a slightly higher salary driving a city bus, but it still paid much less than his old bus-driving job. Then he joined the state highway crew. His six children and stepchildren were growing up, and he wanted them to go to college. So he started cleaning his church two or three times a week. Soon he was into his night sports-event jobs. He realized that “if I can’t make what I need hourly, I just have to supplement my hours,” he said.

North Carolina was one of the states that lost thousands of jobs due to the expanded trade and improved technology in the 2000s — the forces and federal policies that pushed work abroad or allowed employers to replace workers with machines — according to calculations by Autor, the MIT economist who is the godfather of “hollowing out” research. The state lost 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs over the course of the decade. Its real median income fell by about 10 percent; in Forsyth County, where Green lives, it fell about 20 percent. Autor’s research pins much of that loss on the effects of expanded trade with China, because Chinese factories made many of the same items North Carolina’s factories did, but at a much cheaper price.

Few new jobs appeared, in North Carolina or around the country, that paid as well as those lost jobs. Autor and several co-authors estimate that increased import competition from China killed at least 2 million jobs, on net.That left former middle-class workers in a vise. As Autor puts it, the most valuable asset any worker has is scarce labor — the thing he or she can do that most others can’t, which commands a premium in the marketplace. When workers find their labor isn’t scarce anymore, they must work harder just to keep up.

Green starts work every weekday at 7 a.m., driving the paving truck when the weather allows, pitching in on odd tasks when it doesn’t. He gets a half-hour for lunch, finishes his shift midafternoon, then changes in a transportation department locker room and usually drives to a sports stadium. In the summer, he goes to the baseball field, where the Dash, the Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, plays 70 games a year. In the winter, he works security at Wake Forest University’s arena, for basketball games and the odd concert. On fall weekends, he’s an usher at the school’s football games.

One day last year, when it was too cold for paving, Green and his road-crew colleagues slowly trawled up Interstate 40 east of town, clearing brush from the side of the road and feeding it into a wood chipper. Cars buzzed past at 70 miles per hour. The workers on the crew, Green said, know to listen for tires on the serrated edge of the pavement. Or for brakes screaming. You hear those things, you don’t look — you just run.

Ed Green jokes with Julie Griffin prior to a basketball game at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Later that day, Green donned a gold polo shirt with a Wake Forest logo and clocked in at a concrete tunnel under the school arena, where the Demon Deacons women’s basketball team was set to play in a couple hours. He pulled out a cushioned black chair and sat for a quick spell. He said he thinks he will need to work until age 68, another 14 years, to retire.

Green was finally, briefly, relaxing after at least 10 hours on his feet. He is not a small man. Years of standing and paving and trash dumping have whittled away at his health. He’s had shoulder problems, a pinched nerve in his back, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, a stroke.

Several years ago, doctors told him he had prostate cancer. He submitted to radiation treatment, five days a week, four straight months.

He never missed work.

You can talk to Green for hours about his life and his family and his various jobs, and he will never complain about how much he works. He will not blame anyone for his load.

“I work hard to pay the bills,” he said. “I wish I didn’t have to work so hard, but I’ve been doing it so long, it’s just . . . what you do.”

The final game of the Dash’s 2013 season ended with a concussive barrage of fireworks, which shook the stands like artillery fire. When the show stopped, the sleepy, happy crowd filed out. Smoke wafted through the bleachers. Green walked back onto the field for the second time that night.

The employee of the year bent down and began picking spent firecracker shells off the grass.

Credits

About the series

The American middle class is floundering, and it has been for decades. The Post examines the mystery of what's gone wrong, and shows what the country must focus on to get the economy working for everyone again.