On April 24th two groups of young people met up on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, and it wasn’t for the shopping. One group was striking retail and fast food workers who had walked off the job to protest low wages and demand a $15 minimum wage for downtown workers. The other group was students protesting Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s school closings. Many of the striking workers were only a few years older than the students. Inequitable education policies like those of the Chicago Public Schools fall most heavily on low-income communities. The experience of dictates from above disrupting neighborhoods—closing schools, firing school staff, reducing education to performance on high stakes testing–with no voice from those affected doesn’t produce schools encourage low-income students to assert themselves and demand a better life for themselves and their families. Last Wednesday the youth of Chicago taught us what we should already know, the economy is not working for most people in the U.S.
April’s employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is less exciting than strikes and street action. But we should learn the same lesson. The report beat expectations, but the unemployment rate barely changed at 7.5%, labor force participation is actually down slightly, remaining stubbornly low at 63.3%, and more workers who need full-time work are employed part time. The labor force participation rate and high rate of involuntary part-time workers shows once again that the economy is not able to create adequate jobs for our growing population, to truly recover from the Lesser Depression, or to provide workers with the income they need to meet their basic needs. The rise in involuntary part-time employment helped bump the broader measure of unemployment that includes those workers as well as discouraged workers (“U-6”) up to 13.9%.
What job growth we did see in April is welcome, but troublingly concentrated in low-wage sectors or unstable temporary work. 19% of the new jobs were in temporary help services and 18% were in retail, the sector that includes the same employers that workers struck in Chicago because they can’t survive on the low wages. A cruel side of conventional wisdom would say they should be happy just to have a job. Certainly that could be the lesson African-Americans and Latino workers and students could have learned from the disproportionately high unemployment rates in their communities. The unemployment rate for African Americans is 13.2% and a shocking 40.5% for teenagers. For Latinos the rate is 9.0%, 28% for teenagers .Compare that to unemployment for white workers at 6.7% overall and 21.8% for teenagers.
But all workers are feeling the squeeze. The April BLS report shows average hourly wages for workers increased by only 2 cents, which doesn’t even make up for the decline in wages in March. Weekly earnings did decline in sectors responsible for job growth in April. Retail weekly earnings dropped 1% and professional and business and business services (including temps) weekly earnings fell by 0.65%. Thankfully workers and students have learned that jobs, income, and education are all serious problems and are all part of the same struggle for economic justice. We hope policy makers will heed that lesson and act to implement a jobs program with living wages instead of tinkering with the details of sequestration and planning the next round of budget cuts.
The April report may still be greeted with relief because it is not as bad as anticipated, and because February and March employment numbers were revised upwards. This is a privileged view. For the 11.7 million unemployed workers, the 7.9 million workers making ends meet with part-time jobs, and the millions of workers whose low wages show little sign of rising, ‘beating expectations’ still sounds like a bad joke.