Minimum Wage and Jobs Worth Doing

Minimum Wage and Jobs Worth Doing

“There is some evidence,” writes Christopher Jencks in The Homeless, “that lowering the minimum wage does create more low-wage jobs. But that is not the same as creating more stable jobs in which workers come to care about the enterprise that employs them or take some pride in doing useful work.”
I like this quote and think about this idea all the time. Many of the low-wage jobs available to people at the lowest socioeconomic status in the United States are awful. They don’t pay well, they don’t have future growth opportunities, and society seemingly accepts that people working in such awful jobs will face repeated abuse from customers. We know these jobs suck and wouldn’t want our kids to have to deal with them. If we worked in a crummy food service job right out of high school or while going through college, then we know how bad they are, and hopefully have some sympathy for people working in such jobs. Nevertheless, many of us find it easier to criticize people for not working such awful jobs than criticize business owners for allowing such awful jobs to exist.
Our country often has debates about what the minimum wage should be, and while Jencks’ book is now outdated in terms of the research he cites, it is still the case that economists are often mixed on the debate as to whether raising the minimum wage increases job loss and whether lowering the minimum wage would promote jobs. Either way, the debate doesn’t get at the reality that many of the minimum wage jobs that exist are barely jobs worth having. When you factor in travel time, disrespect that comes with such jobs, and the sometimes overly demanding requirements of jobs, it is not hard to see why people don’t want to work them or don’t last in them once they do take them. Focusing just on a jobs count is inadequate compared to thinking about job quality and actual engagement and productivity. Moving forward we need to think beyond the numbers of people working and start exploring the role they are filling, whether the job is flat out awful, and whether there are more productive and rewarding things we could have people do. When viewing the jobs world in this light, future developments in automation are not as scary. Who cares if Walmart checkers lose their terrible jobs if we can find more rewarding jobs for them that suck less? This should be the mission of society and our economy, not simply hiring the maximum number of people for minimum wage work.
The Last Hired, The First Fired

The Last Hired, The First Fired

In the United States our economic system is more or less a meritocratic system. It is not a perfect meritocracy (we all know someone who got a job because of a parent or well connected uncle rather than their skills), but for the most part, hard working people are able to get promoted based on their effort, talent, and skills. If you deserve an opportunity to advance you can normally find an avenue forward, even if it is winding and has some setbacks along the way. For most of us this works to our advantage and helps keep our economy, universities, and public institutions moving forward. But for the homeless people in our society, this turns into a crushing system that doesn’t provide second chances.
“The homeless are clearly the last hired and the first fired,” writes Christopher Jencks in his book The Homeless. Our system of meritocracy awards the hard working and those who are willing to show up early, stay late, and put on a smile in the face of upset customers. Homeless people often have trouble on all of these fronts, partly due to the very nature of their homelessness. They may not have good transportation to a job, making it hard to be early. If they have to be in a shelter by a certain time or risk losing their spot, then they cannot stay late on a job. The stress, anxiety, and disrespect of homelessness often makes it hard for the homeless to have good people skills, meaning they have trouble with performance on the low-wage jobs available to them.
On top of this, being homeless itself is a ding against someone in our meritocratic system. The homeless are seen as defective, so even if someone sets out to be hard working and courteous on a job where they have the right skill set for success, they start further behind everyone else. They are only offered a job when no other employees could be found. Starting behind everyone else means they have more ground to cover to catch up and be seen on par with everyone else. They are constantly under more scrutiny. This makes them vulnerable to being fired even if they are trying hard and doing well. When work is slow and layoffs happen, the homeless are often easily justified as the first fired in our meritocracy.
Any system is going to have shortcomings and the systems of meritocracy in our workplace are no exception. Most of us can do well in meritocratic institutions, but outliers on the extreme ends, the hyper-wealthy and the homeless, don’t have the same experiences in a meritocracy as the majority of us. The homeless can’t get a good start in a meritocratic system, and are penalized before they even try to begin.  I would argue that we need a universal jobs guarantee to ensure that the homeless can find some type of work to do, even if it is ultimately menial and meaningless, to help them get a foothold and avoid being the last hired and first fired from any job they try to maintain. Guaranteeing we can get everyone some type of paid work will enable the poor to find a benefit in participating in our meritocracy rather than being a left-out extremity.
Can Markets Work Without Human Sacrifices?

Can Markets Work Without Human Sacrifices?

In Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “Unemployment, underemployment, and substandard wages are system failures only when viewed from the bottom. Looking from the top down, they are seen as natural processes essential to the healthy functioning of a self-correcting market system. From that perspective, it is as if the market system requires human sacrifice for its good health.” Liebow argues that markets can and should function without such failures. He argues that we have deliberately crafted a system that allows and accepts these market failures at the expense of greater marginal profits and returns on investments. The costs of the failures become spread over society, while the marginal gains are concentrated in the few market leaders.
Liebow encourages us to see homelessness as a system failure. He encourages us to see the support of the homeless as a responsibility of everyone within society and as a responsibility of the system as a whole. His book argues that we cannot rely on the few shelters, the minimal government assistance, and family members of those in need if we want to reduce homelessness. We all have to recognize the costs of homelessness, the way that social and market forces can drive people to homelessness, and the actors who are not helping to solve the problem. In particular, Liebow argues that businesses are not doing enough to solve homelessness:
“As if by magic, the onus of welfare and dependency is lifted from the system of work and the employers and placed on the workers and the unemployed right in front of our very eyes, and no one is any the wiser.”
I don’t think markets need to operate in a way that sacrifices the poorest people. There are statistics about the numbers of employees at companies like Walmart who receive food stamps or Medicaid benefits. Companies are able to pay minimum wage to their employees, and Liebow argues the companies themselves are subsidized for their low wages by our system that provides free healthcare and food to those individuals who cannot earn enough through their job. This shifts the burden of supporting the workforce from the companies that require the workforce in order to be profitable to the workers themselves. This accepts that we will have human sacrifices in order for profits to stay high and for the price of cheap goods to remain low. Liebow thought this was a problem and believed that it was possible for effective markets to exist without such human sacrifices.
I would also argue that there are many jobs that are not being done because we focus so highly on private markets. Companies want to be as efficient as possible, meaning they focus on where they can generate the highest profit. As a result, we don’t build enough affordable housing, our parks and greenspaces are littered with trash that no one is incentivized to clean, and lots of recycling goes to landfills instead of being sorted and reused. These are not all wonderful jobs and it would be hard to get homeless people to do these types of jobs, but the point is that our system which sacrifices the poor also sacrifices those jobs that don’t make the marginal cost benefit analysis worthwhile for corporations. There is work that can be done if we can find a way to allow public institutions to do it. Shifting from a sense of sacrificing the poor may encourage them to actually participate in society by doing these jobs, especially if we can make them suck a little less. Such a system would be a big departure from our current approach to markets, but it is probably necessary if we want greater social cohesion and less poverty and homelessness.
Understanding Why Some Homeless May Not Want To Work

Understanding Why Some Homeless May Not Want To Work

“On one hand,” writes Elliot Liebow in Tell Them Who I Am, “the women desperately want and need the money, the independence, and the self-respect that most of us have come to expect from a job. On the other hand, to get a job and keep it, the women must run an obstacle course at the end of which is a low-pay, low-status job that offers little more than they have without it.” In his book Liebow explains that most of the homeless women he spoke with in his book wanted to work, or at least they saw the benefits that work would provide and wanted those things. However, few of the women he met were actually working.
Women didn’t work because it was difficult to actually obtain a job and difficult to keep a job once they had one. They were not respected during the job search process, and the jobs they landed often put them in places where customers could be rude to them, where the threat of losing the job could induce additional stress and anxiety, and where the work required such great travel and time costs that the cost benefit analysis barely made working worth the effort. For the women at the lowest socioeconomic level, jobs were seen as necessary but insufficient to improve their position in the world, and as a result some simply dropped out and decided it was not worth trying.
A point from Liebow’s quote that I think is worth exploring in more detail is how low-wage jobs available to homeless women are low-status jobs, and how such jobs don’t help integrate individuals into society. No one wants to feel like an outcast, and if we feel that what we do doesn’t matter and isn’t respected, then it is hard for us to get up, put ourselves together, and put in the effort of getting to work and sticking it out through the whole day. In our society we are all constantly looking to improve our status one way or another, and one way to increase our own status is to diminish the status of others, creating a bigger gulf between us and them, even if our status doesn’t actually raise. Relative to those who lose status, we look better. I think this is part of the problem with the low status jobs that homeless people may be able to find. Those who are barely above the homeless are incentivized to keep the lowest-status jobs as low status as possible, to keep themselves marginally better in the status race than the working homeless.
Our country celebrates work, but only certain kinds of work. For the lowest status work, we sometimes accept disrespect and inconsiderate behavior. We certainly don’t do much to praise those who do the lowest status work. Lunch counter servers, lawn service personnel, and janitorial staff are crucial to the smooth functioning and high standards of our society, but people who do these jobs are not well respected. It is little wonder that many people who find themselves choosing between homelessness where they don’t have to be around disrespectful people while they complete menial tasks, chose unemployment over work. Dead end jobs with no prospect for life improvement are not inviting, yet they are often the only option for those who want to work. The increase in status over being unworking and homeless is marginal, and if we don’t make an effort to increase the status of those low-wage workers, we won’t be able to convince them that putting in the effort and actually working is in their best interest.
Many Homeless Want to Work

Many Homeless Want to Work

It is tempting to look at homeless people and people with signs on street corners and hold the opinion that the person simply needs to get a job and all their problems would be fixed. If they would get a job, even if it was physically demanding, low-wage, and/or a dirty job, they wouldn’t be begging for money or sleeping in shelters. We assume people don’t want to work and would rather beg and take a hand-out.
However, when Elliot Liebow spent time among homeless women in Washington DC and interviewed them to understand their lives, he discovered that many of them did want to work, but were prevented from finding and maintaining a job by a number of factors beyond their control. He writes, “At a very general level of unexamined beliefs, most women accepted the proposition that a job is the way out of homelessness. But when they confronted their own concrete situations, they knew this was not true for most of them.” Liebow examines many of the barriers that the women faced with working, and also highlighted how several of the women he met in shelters did have jobs, but still could not rent an apartment.
Some jobs are too far away for someone to commit to. Job security is a challenge for any homeless person, where one slip up or unfair customer could lead to the loss of their job. Additionally, night shifts are not possible for homeless people with no place to sleep during the day, and jobs that don’t have predictable schedules can be extra challenging for homeless or low-income individuals to maintain. If your work schedule is unknown in advance, it is hard to plan appropriately, and if you can lose shifts when things get slow, that means that your housing could be in jeopardy.
Liebow also stresses that it is not simply the money and the desire to no longer be homeless that motivated the women he spoke with to work. “For most people …” he wrote, [the] social value of work is experienced, at the individual level, as a principal source of independence and self-respect.” Work is something we take pride in. Few of us truly want a job where we get paid to sit on our rear ends without any expectations that we actually do anything. While we all work toward retirement, we also want to have meaningful and fulfilling work to do. Liebow continues, “it is through work that we engage the world and become a part of it, and through work that we lay claim to membership in the larger community and, in getting paid for our work, have that membership confirmed by others.” Many homeless individuals want to work, to get money and get off the streets, but also to be accepted members of their society. This is a reality we don’t all recognize or understand (even about ourselves) and we don’t always recognize the barriers that keep people from finding a job that will help bring them back into society in a meaningful and productive way.
Transportation & Jobs

Transportation & Jobs

As I reread the quote for today’s post and the supporting paragraph for additional context, my first thought was simply to write about the importance of transportation to jobs and how overlooked transportation can be for those who have well functioning cars and the resources to maintain and repair cars. For many of us who live in suburbs, our Nation’s public transportation infrastructure is largely invisible and unknown. I was going to write about the ways in which our ignorance of public transportation has failed people in need and people at the lower socioeconomic levels, ultimately crushing the idea that people are poor and homeless simply because they are dumb and lazy. I was going to argue that we should be more considerate and push back against the American individualism we prize so highly if we are successful.
But instead, I’ll reference that idea in my opening paragraph and focus on the complexity of the world around us and use this post to explain why so many people prefer not to think about homelessness and poverty. The challenges are too complex for anyone to fully grasp, and the solutions are not always obvious.
In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “It is also likely that the limits of public transportation directed women toward lower-status, lower-paying jobs, since these tend to be the jobs best served by public transportation. Those sleek, stand-alone buildings around the Washington Beltway, for example were far less accessible by public transportation than were lower-paying jobs in fast food and retail establishments stretched out along main arteries in the downtown areas.”
Liebow explains that homeless women are often able to be presentable and work decent clerical jobs in offices that could help them find their footing and begin to build the stability needed to find a place to live. However, getting to these kinds of jobs is often difficult. Bus lanes don’t always get out to the office parks where such jobs exist, and I know from my own experience in cycling around Reno, NV that sometimes bike lanes don’t go to the office parks or industrial centers where stable low-wage jobs exist. Instead, getting to a fast food restaurant, where hours may be unpredictable and pay may be even lower, is often easier for those experiencing homelessness. If you live in a shelter and have to be inside the shelter by a certain time each evening, lower pay and lower security jobs may end up being your only option.
We want the homeless to find jobs, but we also want to live in suburbs and have our offices relatively close to our homes, especially if there is no real reason for our offices to be located in a downtown center. We want to have ample parking at the office and wide avenues for us to drive down to reach our destination quickly. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t want the things that make it easy for homeless individuals to reach the same places where we work (this may even be by design though few would want to admit it). Addressing the challenges of homelessness may mean making changes to the systems that housed and working people count on to make their lives marginally easier – a tough sell.
To truly tackle the issue of homelessness we need to think about the kinds of jobs available to people, but job availability is often driven by huge and complex market forces. As individuals we are all trying to scrap for our own jobs and job security, and we don’t want to give up either to help another person – especially if we see that other person as less deserving than ourselves. Where our jobs are located is sometimes driven by where the employees live, sometimes driven by local taxes, and sometimes driven by other factors (like good internet and a well connected airport). People need to have jobs to escape homelessness, but jobs are unpredictable and respond to more forces than even a strong government agency could control.
I think people who really want to help end up crushed by the complexity of homelessness. This jobs example is only one aspect of the complexity of homelessness that may leave those who want to help feeling like there is nothing they can do. We want people to work, but finding and maintaining a job, especially a solid job that allows for personal growth is not easy, especially for those who have not been working. With so much complexity it is not surprising that many people simply avoid thinking about the issue, or adopt oversimplified views of homelessness, its causes, and its solutions. The reality, however, for those who wish to make a difference in the world of homelessness, means that multiple complex factors all need to be considered and navigated in order to get more people into stable housing. Multiple factors have to be addressed in tandem before we can really address the housing and homelessness crises that our nation faces.

Keeping a Job

Keeping a Job

In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about homeless women who make an effort to work and earn paychecks. Detailing the experience of a woman named Gwen, he writes,
“Keeping a job could be as difficult as finding one. Keeping a job might mean having to suppress an awareness of one’s real-life situation. Gwen struggled against that awareness. Once, when she had to go to her salesclerk job the next day, she was trying very hard not to be discouraged and not to worry about the fact that The Refuge [the homeless shelter where she was living] would close the next week. You’ve got to have a clear head on a job, she said if your mind is on your troubles, you can’t do your job. Customers want you to pay attention to them, and that’s what your boss wants you to do, too.”
When we think about homeless men and women our first thought is often that these people need to get a job and begin earning money so that they can afford a place to rent and get off the street. When we logically express what each person needs to do we recognize that there is a chain of events taking place. First is securing a job, second is keeping that job long enough to earn a paycheck, and third is being able to afford a place to live to escape homelessness. Somehow, when we casually make this suggestion, we fail to recognize the time that may be involved in each of these steps. We fail to realize that this simple, orderly process that we expect everyone to follow likely requires working a job while not having a place to live.
Liebow’s quote shows how absurd this idea can be. Homeless individuals can hardly be expected to first obtain a job when they live in a shelter and don’t have a stable living situation. Employers will not want to hire someone without reliable transportation to work, who might be coming to work hungry, and who is likely going to be distracted on the job and face numerous troubles outside of work that make it hard for them to perform well. If they do extend a job offer to someone who is homeless, then that individual is likely to have difficult times ahead of them as they try to get their life on track, and that means they may not have the mental toughness and on the job focus to grit through rude customers and challenging work tasks.
This reality is another argument in support of housing first programs. People need to have someplace secure, where they know they can go at the end of the day, in order to put their best selves forward in work. It is truly an argument for expanded social safety net programs in general. Those who contribute to such programs often complain about the costs they bear and the lack of benefits they receive (since they are not the homeless and needy ones) but fail to see how much they could benefit if more people were more productive on the job and were ultimately more productive in society. People are expected to work in the United States, but often they are under-supported and challenged outside of work to an extent that makes both finding and keeping a job nearly impossible. More support upfront may seem wasteful and may seem undeserved, but it may be better for the system in the long run.
Values, Contradictions, and Paradoxes Surrounding Jobs

Values, Contradictions, & Paradoxes Surrounding Jobs

In his book about homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow writes, “values and behavior around jobs and work are awash in ambivalence, contradiction, and paradox.” Liebow goes on to explain the complex relationships of homeless women and work. Many women, he writes, do work or do want to work. Some women hold more than one job, some only work intermittently, and some work random gigs for people they know. Some homeless women do avoid work, while others are afraid to try looking for work because they don’t have a fixed address or phone number to use when applying. Overall, there is a huge variation for homeless women when it comes to their experience with jobs and paid work.
The variation of work and jobs among homeless women shows us that working and homelessness is more challenging than the simple idea of homeless people needing to get a job to get off the streets. Some of the ambivalent or paradoxical ideas around work relate to the idea that one can be working, or want to be working, and still find themselves homeless. It is not hard to imagine why some people give up trying to work when they see others work hard but remain stuck on the streets or still others search for jobs and face constant let down with not being hired due to their appearance, their lack of recent work history, or because of their homelessness itself. It is also not hard to imagine that some women would like to work, possibly just to avoid boredom, but are afraid to try because they don’t want to be outcasts on the job or be looked down-upon by co-workers or customers for living in a shelter or in a car.
Ultimately, I don’t think the relationship that most homeless women have to work is all that different than the relationships most housed people have with work. We all strive toward retirement. We work hard, so that one day we won’t have to work any more. But when we meet someone new, pretty much the first thing we ask is what they do for work. And if they were a wealthy person who never had to work, we look down on them, even if we wish we were in their shoes and didn’t have to go to work every day. We too are living paradoxes when it comes to work and jobs. Some of us work simply to avoid the boredom, to escape our family lives, or to avoid disappointing other people. Some of us love our jobs and would do them even if we didn’t get paid. And some of us are frustrated by those old boomers who just won’t retire to let us take over the top spots that we have been striving so hard to reach – not because we necessarily need more money, but because we want the prestige and title to impress others.
In reading about homelessness, and in my personal interactions with homeless individuals, I am always surprised (which itself I find surprising) when I hear homeless people talking about work. I never expect us to share something in common around work, but the conversations I have heard fit with any conversation complaining about the tedious and unpleasant parts of a job. I’ve heard first-hand the ambivalent and often paradoxical thoughts toward work that Liebow wrote about. The easy way to think about homelessness and work is to assume the homeless don’t want to work. But the reality is much more complicated than the simple assumption. The reality is that all of us have more complicated views and feelings about work than we want to admit, and that include the homeless.
Eviction and Job Loss

Eviction & Job Loss

When we think about eviction and job loss, we probably imagine job loss being the cause for eviction. People lose their jobs, either because of an economic downturn or due to poor performance, and end up being evicted if they cannot find another job in time to pay the rent. Jobs provide money which is needed for maintaining stable housing, so the causal arrow flows from job loss to eviction.
But Matthew Desmond argues that the causal arrow can often point in the other direction. Eviction can cause job loss. In Evicted he writes, “job loss could lead to eviction, but the reverse was also true. An eviction not only consumed renters’ time, causing them to miss work, it also weighed heavily on their minds, often triggering mistakes on the job. It overwhelmed workers with stress, leading them to act unprofessionally, and commonly resulted in their relocating farther away from their worksite, increasing their likelihood of being late or missing days.”
Housing is not something we can afford to think of as a luxury or as a reward for good behavior and an industrious attitude. Housing is in many ways a basic right, and our economic system depends on people having reasonable and affordable housing to participate in the labor market. When we make housing impossible for people to maintain it has an effect on their job performance, hurting our economic system.
The fact that the causal arrow can flow from eviction to job loss also belies another idea that we pride ourselves on in our country – the idea that everyone deserves a second chance. Instead, what Desmond’s quote shows is that one bad outcome can compound and overwhelm an individual. Rather than having a second chance, people snowball into worse states of affairs, each setback making recovery harder and further away. Perhaps an individual spent unwisely, perhaps they used drugs, and perhaps they made other serious mistakes that made their eviction inevitable. But instead of a second chance and an opportunity to bounce back from their mistake, we punish them further by making it harder for them to keep their job. If they do lose their job following an eviction, then they are marginalized even further and pushed further from society. Rather than a second chance, we seem to push people against a steep cliff where any breeze of bad luck could send them tumbling with no end in sight.
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.