Working Without Hope of Economic Stability

The media have been celebrating the good news about unemployment.  The rate has gone down to 8.8%.  But the news obscures the fact that having a job does not provide security for many people.  It doesn’t even make it possible to make ends meet.

A new report that measures economic security notes: “many of the jobs being added in retail, hospitality and home health care, to name a few categories, are unlikely to pay enough for workers to cover the cost of fundamentals like housing, utilities, food, health care, transportation and, in the case of working parents, child care.”  (See, “Many Low-Wage Jobs Seen as Failing to Meet Basic Needs.”)

The official statistics actually function as a kind of camouflage, allowing us to believe that the plight of workers is improving, while the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.

Others are also working to give us a more real account of our fiscal situation.  Robert Frank, an economics professor at Cornell University, has been developing what he calls a “toil index” that “measures the number of hours that median earners must toil each month to be able to rent a house in a school district of at least average quality.”  This gives us a better way to gauge how middle class families are really doing.

In The New York Times, this week, Johnson notes that, like everyone else, “government officials want to look good. That often leads them to enact policies that promote favorable movements in the indexes by which they are judged.”  He adds that, by far the most common and “visible official summary measure of individual economic well-being is per capita gross domestic product — the annual market value of a country’s final goods and services divided by its population.”  The GDP not only lumps the rich and poor together, it completely overlooks such issues as the quality of life required to survive.  (See, “Gauging the Pain of the Middle Class.”)

Measures like the “toil index” and the report on economic security give us a more focused look at our economic well being – but they fail to compete with the official figures and the judgment of most economists.

Our conscious minds are captured by such official “facts.”  They are presented definitively as “jobless rates,” impartial statistics generated by the U.S. Department of Labor.  And they are proclaimed by the media as “news,” real events that have actually happened.  One does not have to be an expert to realize that these are not “facts” at all, but numbers that have been selected and compiled.  Or one has to be exceptionally mindful of how easily the mind is seduced into such beliefs.

This is not a conspiracy.  But it is a sign of how many of us routinely believe what we want to believe – or what others want to believe themselves.  The media just reports the “news.”  Even when they report on such new ideas as the “toil index,” that’s “news” too.  Unless it’s “Opinion.”