Overcoming tough times

We need to get serious about supporting working families in Massachusetts

Economic crises are social accelerators—things that were abstractly understood as trends are suddenly new and crushing realities. Twenty-five years ago, while the “Massachusetts Miracle” of growth charmed a generation of optimists, some observers of “deindustrialization” warned us about a looming vision of an hourglass economy of un­equal incomes and unremitting pressures on single-parent families and those without technical credentials. Since the Great Recession began in 2007, the steady erosion of sustaining jobs for middle-income families has become a flash flood.

In an earlier era, many working families’ incomes and benefits were buoyed by unions, but the hardest hit sectors during this recession are those that used to have the most union density, manufacturing, and construction. The Commonwealth now waits for a real, rather than abstract, recovery, for the time when new job creation once again outdistances labor force entries. While we remain hopeful that this will happen in the not-too-distant future, and that unemployment rates will finally come closer to or below 5 percent (rather than 10 percent), there is reason to fear that recovery will not provide adequate financial support to many families struggling to make ends meet on diminishing real wages.

Even prior to the recession, the majority of low-income parents did not have the credentials required for jobs that paid family-sustaining wages. Low-wage and low-income families who struggled to make ends meet before the onset of the recession won’t share in the benefits of a more robust economy unless one or both of two things happen: either they gain access to the training and education needed for the jobs that provide family support in the newly-restructured economy, or wages provided by their lower-wage jobs improve.

In spring 2010, Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston–based nonprofit, published the Massa­chu­setts Economic Independence Index 2010. This budget calculator—available online at  www.liveworkthrive.org—identifies what it costs to make ends meet in Massachusetts without public or private assistance. In 2010, a family with one adult and two children requires $61,618 ($29.01 per hour) to achieve economic independence—approximately three and one-half times the (grossly unrealistic) federal poverty level of $18,310. A two adult/two child family requires over $68,000—more than $36 per hour. Housing, child care, and a more realistic accounting of transportation and health and other costs make the federal poverty level more or less irrelevant to what is necessary to maintain a basic standard of living.

It is no wonder, then, that 72 percent of Massa­chu­setts married-couple families with young children had both spouses in the labor force in 2008 compared to 67 percent for the nation as a whole. Families with two wage earners have become the strategy to avoid poverty for large numbers of Com­monwealth households.

Single mothers are uniquely vulnerable to poverty; almost three-quarters of all Massa­chu­setts families living in poverty are headed by single women. In 2009, the median income in Massa­chu­setts for single mothers was $29,754, less than half of the Independence Index family-sustaining wage for Boston. Forty years ago the mothers of young children were less than half as likely to be in the labor force.
When job growth begins anew in Massa­chu­setts, will adult earners, including single mothers, be able to support their families? “Hot Jobs 2010,” another CWU report, identifies 11 “hot jobs,” that is, jobs with 100 or more vacancies in Massa­chu­setts at time of publication that require two years or less of education or training after high school and pay enough to support a family. This report, published every three years, demonstrates some key trends in employment.

In 2007, 16 out of that year’s 26 hot jobs required no post-secondary education. By 2010, only two of the 11 hot jobs required no post-secondary education.

Not only are the number of hot jobs dwindling, which is not surprising in a recession, but the education requirements for available jobs are going up fast. Skill levels are not keeping pace. In 2008, nearly half of Massachusetts’s 3.2 million workers lacked a two-year associate’s degree or other post-secondary training.

One effective anti-poverty approach would be to provide access to post-secondary education and training and support for educational success for adult students, especially parents. Yet state policymakers, while long recognizing the importance of higher education and training, have not provided adequate funding and corollary supports to adult students supporting families.

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Massachusetts community colleges are among the most expensive in the nation. Workers earning at the bottom 20 percent of Massachusetts incomes have to pay two-thirds of their salary to receive a community college education. And parents attempting to attend college while raising children face costs of more than double their non-parenting counterparts because of child care costs. Additionally, part-time students are ineligible for many financial aid and educational grant programs. Single parents trying to improve their financial circumstances through education face daunting roadblocks.
The Skills2Compete-Massachusetts campaign, part of a national initiative to promote access to training for middle-skill jobs, has articulated a challenging vision for the Commonwealth:

Every Massachusetts resident should have access to the equivalent of at least two years of education or training past high school, to be pursued at whatever point and pace makes sense for individual workers and industries. Every person must also have access to the basic skills and support needed to pursue such education.

There have been earlier moments in history when society’s reflection on education and the needs of our population and our economy have produced massive change: the 19th century introduction of free public education and the post-World War II launch of the GI Bill, which expanded college attendance five-fold.

Now we have arrived at one of those crucial moments that require an additional investment in education for our workforce, an investment that will almost certainly pay off in increased productivity, increased well-being for families and children, and reduced need for public assistance.

Several short-term initiatives, many proposed by the Asset Development Commission, established by the Legislature in 2006, would go a long way to improve access to higher education and training and help families achieve economic self-sufficiency.

First, support for the Educational Rewards Grant, which provides low-income adults access to education and training. This program is unusual in that recipients can use some of the grant to cover living expenses (as did the GI Bill), an essential component for working and parenting students and one with proven success. The program is currently a victim of state budget cuts with no grants being awarded this academic year.

Second, support for academic and career counseling that specifically targets low-income working adults, recognizing their individual challenges and identifying attainable career objectives with realistic and expeditious pathways. Single parents need information and guidance on what jobs are in demand, which ones pay family-sustaining wages, and the most cost effective and streamlined path to get them.

Third, increased support for adult basic education and better alignment between the K-12 school system and post-secondary schools, ensuring that young adults leaving the public school system are prepared to successfully continue their education and training.

Finally, increased consumer protection and education related to for-profit schools to prevent low-income students from enrolling in high-tuition schools which may not lead to gainful employment.

The other path to improving the earning power of working families, in particular those who may never qualify for a “hot job,” is increasing the wages paid for today’s low-wage jobs. We have in mind the vast number of low-wage workers who care for the old and sick, clean our houses and offices, tend to our gardens and dirty dishes, and, in general, help sustain our Commonwealth in important but often invisible and usually unacknowledged ways. The Clinton Administration used the tax system effectively to “make work pay” through the Earned Income Tax Credit, which reduces poverty but uses taxpayer dollars to subsidize low-wage employers.

Another way is to facilitate workers’ ability to collectively bargain on their own behalf both locally and nationally. Harold Meyerson has noted that Las Vegas is “the only city in the land where service-sector workers in supposedly dead-end jobs can afford to buy homes, retire securely, and put their kids through college.” His observation was not about the beneficence of hotel owners, but rather the effectiveness of Unite-Here, the hotel workers’ union.

There is a certain straight-line logic about this idea: If the loss of union protection has been a large contributor to the vulnerability of so many of our working families, one potential corrective action is new dimensions and areas of union protection.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Some readers may believe that the Commonwealth cannot afford increased expenditures for education and training. And some would oppose measures that would enable more of our less-educated workers to band together to improve their wages and working conditions. But if we are to take seriously the plight of hundreds of thousands of working families in Massachusetts, one or both of these strategies needs to be pursued.

Robert J.S. Ross is a professor of sociology at Clark University. Deborah Connolly Youngblood is vice president of research and innovation at Crittenton Women’s Union.