Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Economics of Survival in America Today

I am writing this blog primarily in response to questions from some of my friends in other countries regarding our American economy and employment situation.  This discussion may, however, also be useful for some of my American friends who “just don’t get it.”  I’ve described on Facebook the way my husband and I, and many other working Americans, struggle to survive every day and keep a roof over our heads.  I have chronicled our persistent yet seemingly futile attempts to escape the downward spiral of debt and somehow climb out of poverty.  Meanwhile, friends from places like India talk about coming here to work, and are surprised when I tell them it might not be such a good idea.  America, after all, has long had the reputation of being “the land of opportunity” where anyone who is willing to work hard can succeed!  And as far as my friends overseas know, the unemployment rate here is lower than it is in many other countries.  So, what is our problem?  Why must we struggle so hard to merely survive?

Well, the “unemployment rate” in America is allegedly around 9%, which when you look at charts comparing us with other countries, really isn’t that bad.  This number does not tell the whole story, though.  I do not know the details of employment statistics in other countries, but here in the U.S. the 9% only reflects those who are jobless and still looking for work.  It does not take into account the people who have simply given up looking for work who, if included, would raise the rate to about 14%.  

More pertinent to our discussion here, however, is the huge number of people who are “under-employed,” including many of my friends.  What does “under-employed” mean?  Usually the term is applied to people who are working only part-time, either because they used to be full-time and their hours were cut back, or because they could not find a full-time job.  It also includes many of the so-called “self-employed” or “independent contractors” like myself and my husband, as I have discussed in some detail in a previous blog post.  

But, a key factor that is often overlooked is that many Americans who are working full-time, and therefore not included in the unemployment or under-employment statistics, are still unable to make a decent living!  Some Americans, including our President, find this unacceptable, and he therefore recently raised the Federal Minimum Wage to $10.10 per hour.  So, now everything is ok, right?  No, and here’s why:  First of all, the $10.10 only applies to Federal employees.  The states are still free to set their own Minimum Wage, which ranges from $4.00 in Montana to $9.32 in Washington, and here in Florida it is $7.93.  More importantly, however, the “Minimum Wage” is simply the lowest rate that employees can legally be paid.  By contrast, a “Living Wage” that would reflect the actual cost of living in America (which BTW is nearly 3 times the cost in India), is estimated to be between $9 and $15 per hour for a single person, depending on which state you live in, and more if you have children.  And we’re not talking about living in a mansion; a Living Wage would just cover the minimum bare necessities (which the "Minimum Wage" does not). 

We got into this situation because over the last 30 years, while productivity has risen steadily, along with the cost of living, the incomes of working people have either remained the same, or declined.  Therefore, many Americans need more than one job to make ends meet, but it can be quite difficult to find two jobs whose schedules don’t conflict, never mind trying to have any kind of a “life” or time with your family.  In addition, there is no Minimum Wage for people who are so-called “self-employed.”  This includes those who are legitimately self-employed at their own business, like I am with my yoga studio, but it also includes “independent contractors” who are called “self-employed” but in fact are employees without benefits, which I am at my other 3 “jobs.”

Yes, I have 4 “jobs” and I still can’t make ends meet because my 3 “contracts” don’t pay squat and I haven’t had any yoga students in a while since everyone around here is broke.  Now, as one of my snippy [ex]friends said, “Nobody forced you to take those contracts!”  Well actually, they kind of did, because there are no “real jobs,” i.e., employee positions, available in my field/s anymore.  In the last 10 years or so, lots of employers have gotten wise to hiring only “contractors,” and you can’t blame them, because it is a really sweet deal – for the employer.  Not so much for the employees, excuse me, “contractors.”

I’ve had the leisure to research and write this blog post while I sit here and wait for work to come in, because it’s been slow today on all 3 of my contracts - the one medical transcription and 2 psychic lines.  I’ve put in 8 hours and will probably make around $20 today, and there is no law against that.  But, I know there are people much worse off than me, and I am very grateful for the work that I do have!  So, my overseas friends, if you’re thinking the grass looks greener here in America (which admittedly it does in the states that have legalized cannabis), take a closer look before you decide to come here to make your fortune.  And be aware that many American corporations have moved to your country to exploit your cheaper labor over there!

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