Quality of New Jobs Is Focus of Election-Year Debate
By Jonathan Weisman and Nell Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page E01
On television screens across Ohio this week, a dejected middle-aged worker will slip on a white paper cap and prepare to flip burgers as an announcer intones, "After a year, you finally land another job. And you wonder, is this what you worked your whole life for?"
The MoveOn.org political ad, and a furious counteroffensive by President Bush's reelection campaign, are crystallizing a burgeoning election-year debate over the quality of jobs being added to the nation's payrolls. One key measure is wages.
MoveOn intends the humble burger flipper to play on worker anxiety about the loss of relatively high-paying jobs, forcing breadwinners to accept lower-wage service jobs.
The Bush administration says that is a misleading picture. Most of the jobs created last month were in industries that pay above-average wages, including health care, construction and financial services, the campaign says. "These are areas where people get paid well, and that has a big impact on kitchen-table issues," said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt.
The debate over job quality comes at a critical time. The Bush campaign is seeking to boost the president's approval ratings on the economy, while Democrats are trying to deny him the political benefits of the recent upturn in U.S. job creation.
Employers have added 1.2 million jobs this year, and average weekly earnings rose 0.3 percent in May and 2.5 percent in the 12 months that ended in May, seasonally adjusted, the Labor Department reported.
But Democrats say paychecks are failing to keep up with the cost of living. After adjusting for inflation, average weekly earnings fell 0.4 percent last month and 0.5 percent in the 12-month period.
"I believe we can do better than rising costs and shrinking incomes," Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the likely Democratic presidential candidate, told an AFL-CIO convention last week.
Some economists also point to stagnant wages and eroding job quality as dark clouds looming over the economic recovery.
"Despite the well-advertised pick-up of job growth, recent trends in real wage income remain very disappointing," lamented Stephen S. Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley, in a June 7 memo to clients. "This, in my view, underscores one of the most serious shortcomings of this recovery -- an unprecedented shortfall of the most important piece of personal income growth," wages and salaries.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company