As we noted earlier, wages of American workers have stagnated over the past 40 plus years. In these days of a generally healthy stock market, very low unemployment, low interest rates, and the fact that the overall economy has been getting steadily healthier since the depths of the Great Recession in 2008-09, we must acknowledge the rut in which we as a nation are stuck.
A new study from the Pew Research Center confirms what many of us sense (and have sensed for quite awhile): our wages on average have not improved much at all in over 40 years. The Pew study reports that “the wage after accounting for inflation has roughly the same purchasing power as it did 40 years ago.” That means that our wages may have increased over time, but they do virtually nothing to improve our lives; our dollar is incredibly weak compared to what it was in the 1970s and early 1980s.
As we have also noted before, and as many US politicians on the left are beginning to realize, average Americans must use that sorely-diminished purchasing power to pay for the basics of living. Unlike citizens of many of the advanced democratic nations with which we most often compare ourselves, our weakened wages must pay not only for food, clothing and housing but also for health care, gasoline for our cars, car insurance, home heating fuel, college tuition and fees, and retirement. We are advised to have several months’ worth of savings on hand in case we lose our jobs – when millions of us already work two or three jobs just to get by and when 40 percent of Americans polled did not have a way to cover a $400 emergency without help. If we do lose our jobs, our unemployment benefits are pitiful compared to those in EU countries. Except for a small amount of Social Security we might have accumulated at the end of our working career, we are expected to put money away on our own, for decades, in order to live comfortably in retirement. We also hear horror stories – and have for decades – of Americans going into bankruptcy because they could not pay their medical bills.
These tragic situations are nearly unheard-of in the healthiest countries in the European Union.
- “The fact remains that Americans are more likely to experience significant declines in their standard of living when they retire and to be relatively poor in old age than people in other advanced economies, and this is only expected to get worse.” (Economic Policy Institute)
- “[E]ven as a high income country, the U.S. spends more per person on health than comparable countries. Health spending per person in the U.S. was $10,348 in 2016 – 31% higher than Switzerland, the next highest per capita spender.” (Health System Tracker)
- “In general Europeans drive less because public transport systems are a lot better than in the US. . . . In Europe you have the option of using mostly pretty clean and well run buses, trams, trains etc. to get to work, where you can snooze, read, stare out the window, or just relax, or have some breakfast at your leisure.” (Wander Wisdom)
- “The least generous countries for unemployment benefits are the U.K., Ireland and the U.S.” (Glassdoor)
While average Americans’ wages are stagnant, the Pew study shows that, once again, most of the wage increases have gone to those who were already the highest-paid. None of us should be surprised by this; at least since the “Occupy Wall Street” movement of 2011 and others that followed, the facts have been out there. The Trump tax bill has further exacerbated the problem: not only does the Republican propaganda around this lie about the advantages to average Americans, but most of the corporate gains from the bill, to date, have not gone to workers’ wages but to stock buy-backs and other advantages to those who are already wealthy.
So, now that we have the bad news, what can we do about it? The suggestions are not rocket science but worth considering.
- We must all stay alert and engaged in our political process. This can be very difficult, but remaining unaware and disengaged has dire consequences, both for individuals and for our nation.
- We must get back to trusting our tried-and-true institutions, rather than propaganda, rumors, and lies. These institutions – which have their faults but which have generally been trustworthy for generations – include mainstream media, police and other law enforcement entities, government programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the judiciary, the military at their best, honest and dedicated civil servants, universities, trained experts and well-crafted studies in a range of important fields, mainline religious institutions, health care professionals, and nonprofit organizations dedicated to the betterment of society. It would be desirable to be able to put our elected representatives back into this category…
- We would benefit from curbing our insatiable appetites for social media. Over-reliance on social media gives us a skewed sense of reality and can actually become addictive and diminish our mental health. We might also consider trying to curb our insatiable appetites for consumer products.
- We must acknowledge to ourselves and our elected officials that the social safety net of our successful sister nations is not some kind of perverted “socialism” but rather a humane and pragmatic system of checks and balances on what might be called “hypercapitalism.” We must understand the relationship between taxes and services – our taxes pay for our public schools, roads, first responders, Social Security, government agencies that protect our food, water, air, endangered species, and so on – and realize that, when the very wealthy are not paying their fair share of taxes, there is significantly less local, state and national revenue to pay for all these services and infrastructures from which we all benefit. Consequently, we must consistently support candidates and leaders who promote support social safety net initiatives, regulations and programs and the progressive taxes that pay for them.
- We must allow the Mueller probe to continue to its logical conclusion then trust the results and act on them. Until right-wing politicians saw that Mueller and other prosecutors were indicting, convicting and obtaining guilty pleas from many associates of President Trump, people of all political stripes were singing Mueller’s praises. We should pledge to not pass along unfounded, damaging criticism of Mueller’s actions on social media or in other ways.
- If Mueller and other prosecutors find that Trump and his associates have violated laws of our nation, Congress must hold them accountable, and we must support Congress in those efforts. No one in our democratic republic is above the law.
- Each of us must find ways to stay emotionally, physically and spiritually sound and healthy. Sliding into depression or apathy, or taking out our frustrations on others, will not only damage ourselves and our loved ones but also our democracy. Some of the ways to stay even-keeled include involvement in religious groups and individual spiritual practices, volunteering to help others, exercise, healthy eating, sessions with a trained counselor, playing/singing and listening to music, creating works of art, literature and poetry, enjoying the company of “healthy others” and pets, and communing with nature.
Few of us really want to go back to 1974 or any other year in the past even if we could. But when we realize how badly “stuck” our wages are – and that invaluable lessons can be learned from how Europeans structure their societies and tackle their social challenges – we can begin collectively to restructure our own society to the benefit of all.