Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Good" Appalachian jobs in danger of disappearing

With a headline like this, "Ohio Town Sees Public Job as Only Route to the Middle Class," it's no wonder that this was one of the most emailed stories in the New York Times yesterday. The report says that the economy is so bad in southeastern Ohio--that's Appalachia, of course--that people scramble for public sector jobs that pay better than the $5.25/hour minimum wage. The public jobs also provide benefits, a real boon in this area where "[d]ecades of industrial decline have eroded private-sector jobs here, leaving a thin crust of low-paying service work."

And to be clear, when journalist Sabrina Tavernise says "middle class," she is referring to what most of us think of as lower middle class. Her story features Jodi and Ralph Taylor, a janitor and a sewer manager. Ms. Taylor, age 37, earns $9 working at Gallipolis Development Center (GDC), well above the wide range of minimum wage jobs she held before getting the GDC job in 1996. Neither of the Taylors has a college education. Nor can they afford to send their sons to college; both have joined the military. Yet together the Taylors earn $63,000 a year which, Tavernise reports, "puts them squarely at the middle point of earnings for American families, and higher than the $50,000 earned by the typical Gallipolis family."

The story's dateline is Gallipolis, Ohio, population 4,042, county seat of Gallia County, population 30,837, just across the state line from West Virginia. Tavernise further describes the socioeconomic milieu as one in which fewer than a fifth of adults have a college degree, one-third live in poverty, and prescription drug addiction is rampant.

Needless to say, people like the Taylors are nervous about what a bill to chip away at the strength of Ohio's public-sector labor unions will mean for them. They're worried about slipping out of the middle class. Ms. Taylor is quoted, "We’re not living in any rich, high-income way. What are they wanting? For everyone to be making minimum wage?”

Tavernise provides more context:
Wages at the bottom of the labor market have stagnated since 1970, with inflation gobbling up gains made over the years. The federal minimum wage buys a lot less today; it represented just 38 percent of the average hourly wage for private, nonsupervisory workers in 2010, down from 47 percent in 1970, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The story is one that is starting to attract increased academic attention. Indeed, it's one I've been writing about for several months now: the broad and fuzzy line that separates the middle class from the working class from the poor is getting more blurry than ever. We increasingly hear the term "Missing Middle," and it appears that more of Ohio's middle class (and presumably Wisconsin's) are now in danger of going missing.

This map shows counties that the U.S. government (via USDA ERS) designates "federal/state-government dependent." While Gallia County is not so designated, neighboring Meigs County and one other county in Appalachian Ohio are.


Jon di Cristina said...

This post underscores the absurdity of calling graduated taxes and unions "class warfare," as if the top two percent of American income earners haven't been steadily separating themselves from the rest of us for decades. Globalization is driving down American wages, so those who are benefiting from globalization have a responsibility to ease the burden on those who are suffering.

I love the free market, but I love it the way I love nature. Both often benefit humanity, but they are also ultimately indifferent to our well-being. When the machinations of the apathetic free market have negative social effects, it is not only proper but necessary to protect ourselves from those effects. We build houses because that's only way to keep ourselves safe when it's cold and rainy. Sometimes the iron fist of government needs to protect us from the invisible hand of the market.

Chez Marta said...
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