In Our View: Yay Jobs, Boo Wages

True economic recovery won't arrive through low-paying employment

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As Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame baseball player and all-world deliverer of witticisms once said, "It's like déjà vu all over again." Consider a January 2011 headline at CNN.com: "Jobs are back! But the pay stinks." Or from November 2011 in U.S. News and World Report: "Economy creating mostly low-paying jobs." Or from August 2012 in the New York Times: "Majority of new jobs pay low wages, study finds."

Why, a year ago, Business editor Gordon Oliver of The Columbian provided an extensive report under the headline, "Clark County wage woes." You know, just in case local residents were feeling out of the "Yay jobs, boo wages!" frenzy that has been sweeping the nation.

So, really, it was no surprise to see another headline this week in the pages of The Columbian — "Report: Most new jobs are low-paying." This accompanied a story saying that the national economy added 162,000 jobs in July, but a disproportionate number of those were part-time or low-paying — or both.

It's like déjà vu all over again.

To quote from The Associated Press story: "Part-time work accounted for more than 65 percent of the positions employers added in July. Low-paying retailers, restaurants and bars supplied more than half July's job gain."

So at least some of us can afford to be well-fed and well-oiled, providing employment for those working in restaurants and bars. But as many people have discovered during The Great Recession, low-paying jobs do not offer a smooth road to economic recovery.

One reason cited for the preponderance of low-wage job growth is an effort by employers to sidestep the coming mandate — dictated by the Affordable Care Act — that companies provide health coverage for full-time workers. The Obama administration recently delayed the implementation of that mandate until 2015, yet employers still are struggling to determine how the new law will impact their businesses.

But not all of the low-wage job growth can be attributed to changes in the health care law. As with anything having to do with economics and economic theory, the reasons for the current conditions are varied and complicated.

Sure, it's fair to argue that having a low-wage job is better than having a no-wage job, yet as the nation continues to inch toward economic recovery, an increase in wages — and therefore purchasing power — for the middle class will be crucial to returning the United States to a position of economic strength.

In the end, faster economic growth, economists say, will be the cure to low-paying jobs. During a time of vast growth in the 1990s, many employers felt compelled to convert part-time positions into full-time jobs in order to attract and retain employees. As Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, said in this week's Associated Press story: "Faster growth should fix things. That's the magic fairy dust."

In the meantime, workers need something more tangible than magic dust. During the post-World War II years of the 1950s, the United States developed a sturdy middle class that allowed millions to pursue their version of the American Dream while developing the most powerful economy in the world. But as a study by Pew Research revealed, 32 percent of Americans last year identified themselves as being lower class, compared with 25 percent just four years earlier.

There is a new economic reality that Americans and their leaders are struggling to reverse. Or, as Yogi Berra, also said: "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."