Wage Theft

Wage Theft

$2.00 A Day by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer looks at individuals in the most dire poverty in the United States to understand their history, experiences, and lives with almost no income. They provide a humanizing look at a group that is often dehumanized, and often taken advantage of. In the book, the authors discuss wage theft, what researchers use to describe violations of labor standards that harm the lowest wage workers who have no avenues for complaints or legal action against employers or gig hirers.
“If one tallied all of the losses suffered by victims of robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts combined,” the authors write, “the figure wouldn’t even approach what is taken from hardworking Americans’ pockets by employers who violate the nation’s labor laws. And the victims are generally the most vulnerable among us.”
The claim in this quote is seems pretty huge to me and potentially a bit hyperbolic. But I believe the idea holds even if the claim itself overstretches. The lowest income people in the nation are easy to take advantage of. They are often desperate for any money or aid they can receive, with the alternative being to put up with unfair work or go with hungry stomachs or no place to sleep. This leaves the poor in a position where it is easy for someone who has hired them for a formal or informal job to make unreasonable demands on their time, effort, or wage that they cannot push back against.
Edin and Shaefer explain that wage theft can take the form of simply not paying someone the wage that was originally offered or paying below minimum wage. However, it can be even more severe, such as forcing an individual to work overtime without paying overtime rates or forcing them to work off the clock and not paying them at all. For the lowest income individual in the country, even being hard working doesn’t help them receive a fair wage, and can be a losing situation for them.
The simple answer to extreme poverty is hard work and getting a job. It is easy to tell the person on the street that they just need to work harder, need to be more persistent, and need to stick out the terrible job they can get in order to work their way up. In reality though, for those low wage individuals, the work they can find can be demeaning and can take more from them than what it gives in terms of wages. They may not get the full amount they should be owed, they may be taken advantage of in a situation that deliberately keeps them from advancing to make more money. Wage theft can create a cycle where the only work for the poor makes them worse off, leading to more spells of unemployment followed by further wage theft and exploitation. When we think about wage theft as Edin and Shaefer present it, we see that the simple answer of getting a job and working hard is not enough for many of the poorest among us to improve their situation.
Guaranteed Jobs

Guaranteed Jobs

About a year ago I read a series of books focused on homelessness and poverty in the Untied States. One take-away I had from the reading was that we need a federal guaranteed jobs program. A guaranteed jobs program would certainly be looked down upon, would not be well respected, would be criticized, but would make a huge difference in addressing deep poverty across the nation.
In their book $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer explore the lives and realities of people living on an average of $2.00 a day in the United States. There are people in our country living a poverty so severe that many of us cannot imagine it exists within our country, yet the number $2.00 a day poor has increased recently and results from a complex set of factors that the authors explore.
One factor explored by the authors is a lack of quality and meaningful jobs for people at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale. Jobs for these individuals are often unreasonable in multiple ways. Schedules are often set at the last minute, with unpredictable and often unworkable hours. They are also often part-time, temporary, and likely to be cut at the slightest misstep. Better jobs may be available, but they may be further away than an individual living in poverty can reasonably and reliably commute to. Jobs, in other words, are not as easy to obtain and maintain as people higher up the socio-economic scale might imagine, and getting a foothold with a job to propel oneself is often next to impossible for individuals whose work future is hanging in the balance with every tiny misfortune.
Jobs provided by a government, jobs that are always available and make an effort to meet people where they are, simply do not exist. For the nation’s poorest, a job in government is almost impossible to find. The authors write, “a small group of low-skilled individuals find work at municipal buildings or in schools (perhaps as cafeteria workers or bus drivers), but prison inmates are sometimes used for maintenance and janitorial services in these places [specifically referring to the Mississippi Delta region].”
Our nation’s poorest compete for very few low wage public jobs. Part of their competition comes from prison labor, where inmates are paid less than minimum wage to work. I think these prison programs are a good thing, though I have never studied or considered them in depth. But it is notable that those in deep poverty have to compete against prisoners who make less than the minimum wage.
The only things stopping our country from developing a guaranteed jobs program is a lack of interest and stigma against the poorest of the poor. It is likely that we would not be able to find truly meaningful work for everyone who wanted and needed a job at all times, but we should make an effort to find something to do to employ the poorest among us in one way or another. There is no reason we cannot develop a program that would help meet people where they are and find something for them to do for which a wage can be provided. We have diminished the social safety net programs that help support the poorest among us, often with the argument that people should only receive such support if they are productive members of society, but we don’t make any efforts to help people become productive members of society. We don’t offer guaranteed jobs and we don’t do a lot to work with people who have not been employed for a long time to get them back into the swing of work. While some programs exist, generally we don’t find flexible ways to let people work and find pride in being part of society.
Instead, we marginalize people, criticize them for being failures, and push them to the side while blaming them for their failure. Companies and businesses are then unwilling to hire such people, reinforcing in their own minds that their failure is something inherent in who they are, driving a vicious cycle of failure, poverty, apathy, and despair. It is not a welfare program itself that drives this cycle, but the entire system and way in which we act toward such people. A guaranteed jobs program would not be perfect and would not solve every problem for every individual, but it would start to make a difference and offer some people a real way out of $2.00 a day poverty.
A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

Personal responsibility in the United States is huge. It drives much of how we understand ourselves, others, and our economic and political systems. We believe that the individual has the power to shape their life for the better, to overcome obstacles, and to find success as long as they take the responsibility to do the right things. We reward those who are responsible and succeed and we offer little aid or assistance for those who can’t seem to figure it out on their own.
“Yet laying the blame on a lack of personal responsibility obscures the fact that there are powerful and ever-changing structural forces at play,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States there is opportunity to achieve the American Dream and to reach for a better life, but there are also challenging factors that limit the opportunities for some while amplifying the opportunities for others. There are real structural forces which limit the opportunities and second chances for some people, and are ignored by those who don’t face such challenges.
Writing specifically about the low-wage job market, Edin and Shaefer continue, “whatever can be said about the characteristics of the people who work low-wage jobs, it is also true that the jobs themselves too often set workers up for failure.”
Edin and Shaefer explore commonalities among low-wage jobs that seem designed to provide marginal benefits to employers by making the jobs themselves more challenging for the employees. Service sector jobs often have unpredictable hours, don’t come with any benefits, don’t include opportunities for promotion, and can be physically demanding without appropriate supplies and materials for employees to complete their work. When low-wage workers are desperate for employment, they cannot complain to any government agencies about unfair or poor working conditions. If the employer is shut down, then they loose their source of income, even if it is dehumanizing. As a result, hard work doesn’t pay in these low-wage jobs. After enough poor experiences where working hard doesn’t help someone get ahead, it is not surprising that many opt out all together or put forward minimal effort when they do get an opportunity.
The larger structural forces, however, often end up being ignored. In the United States we chose just to focus on the individual and their responsibility, blaming them for quitting a job which was designed to make them fail. We blame the individual for not being smart enough, skilled enough, or resilient enough to stick it out and get to a better position after starting at a minimum-wage, dead-end job. Personal responsibility and structural forces clash, but from the outside we are only able to focus on the failures of the individual, giving little thought to the larger forces at play.
Jobs and Addiction

More Than The Chemical: Jobs and Addiction

A simple view of addiction is that people become hooked on a powerful chemical and their entire life becomes focused on nothing but the drug. The chemical sinks into the brain of the addicted person, and their desire for the neurological high from the chemical drives them beyond everything else. If only we could stop the person from ever being exposed to the chemical, even once, we would prevent them from ever developing their drug addiction and chemical dependence.

 

This view, however, is incomplete. A lot of what I try to do with this blog is show that the world is more complex than we often realize. It is easy to sit at home, listen to a news story on TV, and call everyone an idiot while offering an obvious solution from the couch. In reality however, our first impressions of the world and its problems are woefully inadequate, and drug addiction is a good example.

 

I recognize that chemical hooks, neurotransmitters, and brain chemistry are major parts of addiction, whether to a chemical substance, to a behavior like gambling, or other forms of addiction, but research that Dave Chase’s book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call presents is a good indication that there is more going on than just a drive to fill the brain with a chemical. Chase writes, “For every one percent rise in unemployment, there’s a four percent rise in addiction and a seven percent increase in emergency department visits.

 

Our economy, it appears, is deeply connected with addiction. It is not hard to think of a causal model between economic performance and addiction. Having a meaningful job gives people a chance to feel valued, gives people a chance to contribute to society, and gives people an increase in their social status (in political science we might think of Social Construction Theory: working people are Advantaged or at least Dependents whereas the unemployed are simply Deviants).

 

When people lose their job, they feel a loss of social status, they may feel helpless if they cannot find another job of equal status, and they lose their feeling of importance. They become more vulnerable, and it appears are more likely to turn to substances to blunt the pain they feel, either physically, mentally, or emotionally. This sets people up for addiction.

 

In this model, addiction is not just a moral failure. It is a failure at more levels than just the individual and their ability to work and resist chemicals. Our society has isolated people and made it hard to maintain strong family connections. When jobs disappear and people don’t have close people and community connections and organizations to turn to for meaning, purpose, and participation, they will struggle, and in their empty void potentially turn to drug use. Economic data makes this clear, and the solution is not just to provide someone with a bleak call-center job, but to really develop community connections, meaningful work, and opportunities to improve social status while deepening relationships and opportunities to contribute to society. Drug use is not a simple issue, it is tied to larger economic and social forces, and we have to recognize that reality to solve our nation’s problems.
Making People Feel Valuable

Making People Feel Valuable

Toward the end of his book Dreamland, Sam Quinones quotes a the VP of sales from a shoelace factory in Portsmouth Ohio named Bryan Davis. Speaking of the company that Davis helps run, and discussing how Davis and a few others took over a failing shoelace company and reinvented it, Davis says, “It’s all been about money, the mighty dollar. The true entrepreneurial spirit of  the U.S. has to be about more than that. It has to be about people, relationships, about building communities.”

 

Quinones writes about how the decline of manufacturing has harmed cities across the United States. He understands why companies have relocated oversees, and in some ways accepts that businesses move and that economies change, but he sees the abandonment of American workers and the lack of supports for those workers when opportunities disappear as a major contributing factor to the Nation’s current opioid epidemic. When people suddenly lose the job they have held for years, when there is no clear alternative for them to turn to in order to feel useful, valuable, and like a contributing member of society, an alternative to ease the pain of their new reality is often pain killing opioid medications. It is an easy recipe for widespread addiction.

 

I don’t understand economics well enough to place criticism on businesses and factories that move operations to different cities, different states, or different countries altogether. I won’t criticize or praise these companies, but what is clear to me, is that we need to find ways to be more respectful of the people who work for and with us. We need to find real ways to make people feel valuable in their jobs, whether they are call center staff, healthcare workers, or a VP of a successful company. We can’t set out with a goal to make money and then withdraw ourselves from the lives of our fellow Americans and communities. We have to develop real relationships with people across the political, economic, and cultural spectrum of the communities where we live, otherwise we turn toward isolation, which isn’t helpful or healthy for ourselves or others in the long run.

 

This is the idea that Bryan Davis expressed. We can be inventive, creative, and push for economic success, but we should do so in a way that supports our community and values relationships with those around us and in our lives. If we only drive toward our own wealth and bottom line, we risk exploiting people, and that ultimately leaves them in a vulnerable position where isolation, depression, and isolation are all the more possible.

Place-making and Networks

One idea from The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak is that states and cities should not be looking to attract companies simply by offering tax breaks and by promising to streamline permitting. Bringing companies that can be enticed by these types of handouts is a good way to generate short-term positive headlines, but it is unlikely (especially on its own) to attract the kinds of companies that will help develop a city or metropolitan region into an attractive hub for other companies. For Katz and Nowak, what is more important than just getting a few companies to move in with tax breaks is engaging the business community that already exists, and working with civic and private sector leaders to invest in place-making.

 

A general problem we have faced in the United States over time is sustained disinvestment in localities. This has taken different forms at different times and has had serious conflicts for people living in disinvested places. For years, urban centers were ignored as people moved to outlying suburbs, and the result was a crack epidemic and a hollowing-out of many great American cities. Today, we are disinvesting in our suburban small towns and in former manufacturing hubs in the Midwest. The result has been an opioid epidemic and a spike in suicides. Simply convincing a company to move to an area that has been disinvested with some tax breaks won’t help solve our underlying problems and won’t help cities and people adapt to a dynamic globalized economy. What we are more likely to see in this strategy is the attraction of companies who are able to implement exploitative labor strategies that burn-out the people who have faced disinvestment and desperately need jobs.

 

“Networks must now ensure that their education and workforce development systems produce locally grown talent with the specialized skills that align with local advantages,” write Katz and Nowak. On its own, this advice is not very helpful. But when you think about what a network is and how cities can invest in existing networks within a region, you see that this advice is actually quite practical and represents a shift from the traditional thoughts of attracting companies to a region to produce jobs. Cities have to consider their advantages, such as ports, transportation lines, physical space, or educational institutions, and find ways to connect local business leaders, engaged civic actors, and other organizations in a way to get stuff done. Engaging to talk about problems and starting action for just a few months is insufficient – leaders need to be engaged in long term place-making – a committed effort to improve the region in a “rising tide lifts all boats” type of approach.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “And they must also create quality places that not only attract and retain workers and companies with a rich set of amenities, but also provide a platform for the seamless and collaborative exchange of ideas.” The organizations and groups brought together in these networks cannot remain in individual silos. They need to be connected through new co-governing institutions that have the power and authority to make real decisions that generate meaningful investments in the places where businesses operate and where workers live. Without such long-term and permanent planning that gets stuff done, cities will meander along with incremental changes, or worse, will continue on a path of disinvestment that leaves their citizens vulnerable to despair and exploitation.

City Growth – The Sports Play

I’m a fan of the research and work that comes out of the Brookings Institute, a generally center-left think-tank in Washington DC that I believe does a good job at looking at politics and policy holistically, and is able to get beyond the partisan rhetoric that dominates most of our political landscape. An area of interest for many of the writers and policy experts at Brookings is the area of economic development in metropolitan areas, particularly as related to sports and business retention. Two Brookings experts, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at how Indianapolis used sports to help jump-start the city’s economy, but present the information in a way that shows that reliance on sports alone is not sufficient to develop a thriving middle class and robust regional economy.

 

“A sports-based development strategy,” they write, “can take a city only so far. Sports attract tourism and visitors. Game time enhances demand for lodging and restaurants. Name teams may have an intangible effect on the attraction and retention of innovative firms and talented workers. But in the end, the sports industry thrives on low-wage jobs and does not represent a model of economic growth for a city or metropolis. Beer and hot dogs are not the stuff of a sustainable middle class.”

 

In their book The New Localism, the authors talk about the efforts that Indianapolis took to attract and retain an NFL football franchise and also to attract the NCAA headquarters. They go on to further explain how Indianapolis was not content to simply rest on being a sports headquarters and reinvested the energy and revenue from sports to drive and build new sectors. Sports teams can help be a support for a local economy, but they will never be a major driver, and on their own don’t appear to be worth the enormous tax breaks and stadium construction assistance that many cities and states seem eager to provide.

 

As Katz and Nowak stated, sports can have intangible benefits for communities like city pride and can serve as a hub for local events. But cities need to provide other attractions and benefits for their citizens. The people need additional higher paying jobs than can be found in a stadium and need real innovation to keep pace in our globalized world. If cities and states over-invest on the sports side, they may miss out on developing and investing in the factors that can make cities dynamic and competitive in the long run. Ultimately, sports teams can be a good attraction and can serve as a spark for energy and investment in making a city a good place to live and do business.

Wasting Ourselves on Work

I have some ideas about work that are pretty far out there for an American. In the United States, we prize work so highly that we put up with all kinds of BS in order to make more money, show our worth, and earn particular titles. It is true that we need to work and earn money to live comfortable lives, but the extent to which we chase money and status is far beyond what is really necessary for us to be comfortable and this pushes the work we do in strange ways. We elevate the importance of our careers and often judge ourselves and others first by the jobs we have. When we meet a new person, one of the first questions we ask is, “what do you do?” meaning, what is your job. We don’t ask what someone likes to do for fun, what hobbies someone has, or where someone last vacation. Instead we ask about their job so that we can compare ourselves to them and get a feel for the kind of person we are speaking to.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “A good man will not waste himself upon mean and discreditable work or be busy merely for the sake of being busy.” We are going to spend about 80,000 hours of our life working. The time we spend earning money can be time that we spend engaging with something just for the purpose of earning a living, but it can also be time we spend trying to make the world a better place. We can push for ever greater responsibility in our job, ever higher salaries, and more impressive titles, but we don’t need to. Seneca would argue that to the extent possible for each of us, we should try to do the most meaningful work with the time, skills, and abilities that each of us have. This can be a daunting and paralyzing thought today, which is unfortunate, but it is something that many of us can consider as we move forward.

 

At some point I think most of us set out to make a difference and to do something more on the noble side of work. However, we often settle into careers we don’t really like, work in settings and for bosses we don’t enjoy, and push ourselves in our careers at the expense of our family, happiness, time, and sometimes sanity. At a certain point, once we have a high enough salary, I think our goals and motivations shift from doing meaningful work and making enough for comfortable living to trying to impress others and show how valuable we are. This is equivalent of being busy for the sake of being busy, or worse, being busy for the purpose of impressing other people.

 

We won’t all have the ability to do the most meaningful work on earth, and I understand how scary it can be to step away from a good paying yet boring or meaningless career to take on something meaningful but low paying and unstable. I know that as our income rises our satisfaction with life will also rise, yet we should be considerate and aware of our trade-offs in search of more money, and we should be honest with ourselves about our motivations for the work we do. When we can, we should try to make a difference and do the best with our skills, time, and ability and avoid having a career or trying to climb a ladder just to show off to those around us.

Early in a Career

I recently changed jobs, and a piece of advice that I revisited from Ryan Holiday in his book The Ego is the Enemy has come back to me at a perfect time. Holiday writes, “When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well.”

 

Our tendency as successful young graduates, something Holiday addresses directly, is to want to prove ourselves. To prove that we were worthy of being hired over all the other candidates. To show that we are awesome and can handle the spotlight and the opportunity given to us. Our urge is to take on the biggest project, the most important client, and to do something truly impressive to show that we are great. The problem for us young people, is that we really don’t have much experience and what we learned in the classroom may not be directly applicable or up to date by the time we get into the swing of a job.

 

Holiday suggests that instead of being so focused on proving ourselves and trying to make a big impact by doing something visible and possibly beyond our ability, we should instead look to serve those who have already been in successful in their roles at our new organization. He writes, “It’s not about making someone look good. It’s about providing the support so that others can be good. … Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.” The benefit to this strategy, according to Holiday, is that it puts you in a place and mindset where you are more focused on learning and growth than on individual achievement.

 

When you try to prove yourself early on, you risk doing too much, insulting others who can assist you on your journey, and failing to learn from the mistakes of others. When we make egotistical power grabs others will notice. If we allow our ambition to run faster than our skills and experience, we risk putting ourselves in places where we need assistance and need the buy in from those around us, and if we do this early in our career before we have  developed relationships and proven that we are deserving of help and assistance, we may find ourselves isolated. Helping others shows us where opportunities and trends lie, and it also builds allies for the future when we hit our own rough patches. Working to assist others early on doesn’t mean that we won’t have opportunities to do great and meaningful work, but rather that the work and effort we put in will align with the goals and objectives of others, helping the organization as a whole be more productive and effective, ultimately creating bigger wins and more success for us and others. We can still step up to take on big projects, but by making it about someone else and helping someone else succeed as opposed to making ourselves look worthy and impressive, we are likely to have more support and to have more guidance to make our success more likely.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will help preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit and suggests that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of the people working with or for you. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and items that seem like extra and unnecessary steps. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future.