Lack of good jobs among issues facing Oregonians

Statesman Journal
September 4, 2011By Peter Wong

It's not a pretty picture that two think tanks painted for Oregonians on this Labor Day.

But the statements in a report released last week by Demos, a nonpartisan but liberal leaning public policy research and advocacy institute based in New York, and the Oregon Center for Public Policy in Silverton are worth pondering. OCPP has put out reports on previous Labor Day weekends; this is a joint report.

"The Fraying of Oregon's Middle Class" lays out their case:

-A lack of good jobs. (Median annual earnings in Oregon were about $31,000 in 1980, above the national average; adjusted for inflation, $32,960 in 2009-10, below the national average. Also, the share of higher-paying manufacturing jobs has dropped; service-industry jobs, many of which do not pay as well, have grown.)

-A shift in costs for health care and retirement from employers to employees. (Employer coverage for health insurance has not declined as much in Oregon as in the rest of the nation, but employees are picking up greater shares of health and retirement benefits.)

Higher costs to raise a family. (Homeownership had dropped in Oregon, but is on the rise again; costs of housing and child care are increasing, as are their share of household incomes.)

-College degree increasingly out of reach. (Average in-state tuition in Oregon was $7,080 in 2009-10, and is increasing again, although state universities are poised to break the 100,000 enrollment mark this fall. But post-graduate debt also has risen to an average of $22,000.)

-Diminished economic prospects for young people. (In addition to post-graduate debt, many entry-level jobs lack health insurance, and defined-contribution plans — if offered — put the risk of investment savings on the workers.)

Bob Herbert, the former New York Times columnist and current distinguished senior fellow at Demos, said all of these developments in the past three decades have reversed the economic and social trends of the three decades after World War II.

"This middle class didn't just happen," he said in a conference call. "It was the result of a grand bargain by government, businesses and ordinary workers agreeing on a set of shared values that all Americans should have a decent life."

Corporations and their top executives paid their fair share of taxes, he said, and post-WW II government programs ensured access to higher education, homeownership, mobility — primarily interstate highways — and scientific research that led to commercial applications. Labor unions also played a big part.

"But in just one generation, that grand bargain has been destroyed," Herbert said. "The Great Recession was the latest devastating blow. America's vast middle class, once the envy of the world, is on life support."

Income inequality in the United States is the greatest since 1928, just before the Great Depression.

Herbert said while globalization and technological change are factors, "the reality is that our public policies over the past three decades have ensured that these two forces hit American workers like a ton of bricks."

Among those policies, he said, are opposition to unions and public spending, and support of tax cuts favoring higher-income households.

"We think it's important that lawmakers acknowledge that public investment creates and sustains both public- and private-sector jobs," said Chuck Sheketoff, executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

As examples on the state level, he mentioned state-supported health care, child care, long-term care for older people and people with disabilities, the "Cool Schools" program to make school buildings more energy-efficient, and public works projects.

He also said lawmakers should continue to reduce or eliminate tax breaks for businesses and individuals.

In the long run, he said, improving education at all levels — "from kindergarten through life," quoting a remark by an Intel executive — will lead to a more skilled and productive work force.

"Putting Americans back to work is the paramount mission of our time," Herbert said. "The sooner we come to realize that, the sooner we will again solidify America's standing as the world's preeminent land of opportunity."

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