Freedom From Want, Freedom From Fear

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Our job should be a source of pride and stability, something we can rely on to grow and prosper. We work for a wage, of course, and the income we generate is how we take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Our job, however, should also give us a certain peace of mind; a solid, predictable income, rewarding our work and effort.

Post-pandemic, both the US and Connecticut’s overall economies have seen an impressive economic recovery. Unemployment went down to four percent and stayed there. After a brief inflation spike, wages quickly caught up with prices and have grown steadily in real terms for more than a year.

Despite the impressive GDP numbers and jobs figures, however, polling shows that a significant share of voters are still uneasy about the economy. Although low-income workers have seen the fastest income growth, many families are still reeling from recent price increases. Housing costs, especially in our state, have left many struggling to make ends meet. Growth numbers are better than they have ever been (vastly outperforming the figures from before the pandemic), but a deep-rooted pessimism remains, a sense that trouble is lurking around the corner. Some observers find these two trends contradictory, even surprising. However, looking at how the economy has changed in recent years, this negative attitude towards the economy is not entirely unjustified.

When looking at the labor market, policymakers have basically two sets of tools to ensure no one is left behind. On one hand, we have benefits and transfers; policies that act as insurance when someone falls on hard times, with unemployment benefits being the classic example. These are usually means-tested, temporary programs, designed to avert immediate hardship from a job loss. They range from health insurance to child care subsidies, and their coverage often extends to many low-income workers.

On the other hand, we have policies that seek to shape how the labor market works, regulating jobs and the workplace. The minimum wage is the best-known example; a law that puts a hard floor on worker’s pay. These regulations are not typically means-tested and aim at ensuring all workers are treated fairly in their jobs. We are talking about policies like the 40-hour work week, weekends off, overtime pay, collective bargaining, or safety inspections. In other countries, you find regulations about severance pay, job scheduling, paid time off and vacation, or job protections.

New Deal Democrats traditionally advocated for a mix of both policies; a strong safety net paired with effective workplace regulations. This approach, however, changed at some point during the nineties. The neoliberal view was that regulations interfered with efficient markets, while conditional cash transfers were more targeted towards those who needed the most help. Legislating about jobs fell out of favor.

Workers really value these protections and rules. The workers who value them the most, in fact, are those at the bottom of the scale, especially those with no college degree, who enter the labor market already at a disadvantage and have a harder time securing any kind of benefits. A recent article by Ilyana Kuziemko, Nicolas Longuet Marx, and Suresh Naidu (Princeton and Columbia) spells this out in detail, pointing out that a significant share of Democrats’ loss of support from working-class voters closely trails their increasing reluctance to support these kinds of regulations. As the party abandoned their commitment to tame the market, the workers that are the most exposed to risk felt disillusioned and left. College-educated workers, meanwhile, are much more likely to support cash transfers and means-tested programs, which explains in part their rising support for the party.

The main difference is that non-college educated workers highly value job security. Although their job might be fine now and the economy is doing well, they often lack benefits like health insurance, paid sick days, or vacation. They do not have the peace of mind of their peers in better-paying positions; despite growing wages and near-full employment, they do not feel safe because there are no laws or regulations protecting them.

A pro-worker agenda, then, should look at jobs and the workplace from both ends; helping those in need while also ensuring that those employed have the stability they need to thrive. This means supporting policies like paid sick days, ensuring that no one will lose their job or fall behind on their bills because they got sick. It means passing a predictable scheduling law, so workers know something as essential as when they will be called into work and how much they will earn any given week. It means a single minimum wage for all workers, so those who rely on tips are not two slow nights away from not making ends meet.

These are the kind of policies we will be advocating for at the Capitol this legislative session – legislation aimed at ensuring that working families feel safe and have jobs they can rely on, not just a paycheck.  And paid sick days, predictable scheduling, and better minimum wages are not just good for workers; they are also popular policies that can and will bring non-college educated voters back to our side.

One final note: Donald Trump’s strength among non-college educated voters stems, in no small measure, from his vocal advocacy for these types of regulations, mainly his loud opposition to free trade. His populism is, of course, mostly a sham, but his message resonated for a reason. Workers do not want just a handout; they want an even playing field. We need a labor market that provides good jobs for everyone, not a privileged few.