Originally appeared in The New York Times on April 22, 2017.
The profile of today’s angry working-class voter is someone who has found that tickets to middle-class life have run out because manufacturing jobs they once could live on have given way to low-paying service jobs.
Now, even many of these service jobs are disappearing. A recent report in The Times documented the decline of suburban malls as online shopping advances. The e-commerce share of total retail sales has doubled roughly every six years since 2004, reaching 8.3 percent at the end of 2016. One result is that employment at retail outlets has fallen. Department stores and other general merchandise stores, like supercenters and warehouse clubs, have been hit especially hard, shedding 89,000 jobs from November through March.
These developments are troubling because they indicate dislocation and even hardship for some workers, at least in the near term. But contrary to popular perception, they do not validate the pervasive — though overblown — fear that technology will create a jobless future.
In the past year, about the same number of people who recently lost jobs in those large retail outlets got jobs in transportation and warehousing, an indication that online shopping created jobs even as the decline in suburban retailers eliminated them. In addition, as The Times report noted, upscale malls are thriving, and some online retailers are opening brick-and-mortar stores.
Yet while blaming technology is misdirected, this shift in employment raises important challenges and implications for public policy. People who are laid off need help, and newly created jobs are not necessarily perfect substitutes for lost jobs. The government needs to effectively manage inevitable change for the greater good.
The immediate need is to ensure a strong safety net for displaced workers, including unemployment benefits and continuous health care coverage.
The bigger challenge is to ensure greater pay and security for jobs that survive the upheaval and those that are created. Service workers are poorly paid and have few benefits because of intentional policy decisions, not impersonal forces. Unless those policies are changed, such jobs will never restore and support a middle class.
The unions that for so long made factory jobs a middle-class mainstay have not been much of a force in the service sector, partly because laws and regulations have made union organizing difficult. The erosion of minimum wage levels and overtime pay standards, combined with high executive pay, has also suppressed worker pay. The lack of efficient public transportation, child care, fair work schedules and paid sick days virtually guarantee one employment setback after another for workers who are already struggling to get ahead.
There is no shortage of low-wage work in the United States, so laid-off, low-wage retail workers are likely to find new jobs. But that is no comfort. The reasons for the grim work lives of many working-class Americans are clear, and so are the ways to help.
President Trump won by appealing to these voters. Now it’s his turn to help them.