We talk a lot about good jobs: how we don’t have enough good jobs, how to connect young people to good jobs, etc. So, what is a good job?
Setting aside how you feel about your job or how happy you are in it (it’s only a few days after the start of DST; we’re all cranky), there are certain characteristics of employment that make economic security and mobility more possible. Obviously, earnings are a big part of that—does the job pay enough to cover basic living expenses in your area? Across the South, the percentage of the workforce who are low-wage workers varies—from 16 percent in Virginia to 25 percent in Arkansas, with higher rates for women than men. In Brownsville, TX, one of the communities profiled in the State of the South report, 30 percent of the workforce, and 34 percent of working women, are low-wage.
There are also characteristics of employment beyond earnings that can have a significant effect on a person’s economic situation. According to the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University, these include job benefits (retirement savings, paid sick and vacation days, health insurance subsidies, disability insurance, education benefits), job flexibility (paid personal leave, modified schedules to accommodate care-giving needs), and consistent work (sufficient and predictable hours). An employee with some or all of those benefits is much more likely to be economically secure and able to invest in her future, and her family’s future, through additional education, savings, and home ownership. The ability to build wealth, as we’ve said previously, is crucial to intergenerational mobility.
These characteristics are far more likely to be found in some occupations than in others. According to an IASP study, only 47 percent of service industry workers have access to paid sick leave, and 49 percent have no retirement or medical benefits, while 85 percent of management and professional workers have paid sick leave, and only 9 percent have no retirement or medical benefits. Since people of color are overrepresented in service occupations and underrepresented in management occupations, there’s a huge racial disparity in the availability of employment benefits and protections. Plus, growing numbers of contingent, temporary, and part-time workers are unlikely to be covered by policies that apply to full-time permanent employees.
To recap: a good job is one that pays enough to cover basic living expenses and is stable enough for saving and wealth building. Across the South, there are efforts to increase the quantity of good jobs and to increase the ability of young people to get those good jobs. But there’s a danger if these efforts are made in isolation. If we focus only on career pathways into “good jobs,” then we ignore the concrete and realistic steps that could be taken to improve the quality of all jobs.
Our labor market extends benefits and protections only to the types of occupations we value—and the determination of which occupations are valued is based largely on cultural assumptions about who works those jobs and what kind of treatment they deserve. Recent history is full of examples of how the U.S. has systematized exploitative, and often racist, labor practices for economic gain and to reinforce class hierarchy. When the Social Security Act passed in 1935, farmworkers and domestic workers, who were predominantly people of color, were deliberately excluded to appease Southern lawmakers. The exclusion of those occupations meant that between 70 and 80 percent of Southern blacks were not eligible for unemployment insurance or social security. And until this year, employers of home health aides (who are often women of color) were exempt from overtime pay regulations, meaning many were being paid below the minimum wage.
We tend to think of good jobs as high-wage and high-skill jobs that require a formal education, while low-wage jobs are thought of as low-skill and are rewarded and protected less. But are low-wage jobs actually low-skill? As an editor at Bon Appétit discovered, a line cook at a Waffle House is not a low-skill job, and those skills are advanced through on-the-job training that is uniquely suited to that workplace. (As Dolly says “They just use your mind and they never give you credit.”)
The skills we tend to reward with good-job pay and good-job qualities are the ones we associate with formal education, and so low levels of educational attainment in the South are tied with low levels of employment security. Because of wide disparities in educational success—thanks largely to school segregation and classroom segregation—we think of some students as college-types and good-job-types, while we assume others are headed for low-wage and supposedly low-skill work.
Some employers in low-wage industries recognize that investing in their employees’ economic security and skill development leads to better long-term outcomes for both workers and business. Starbucks provides employees with health coverage and retirement savings matches, and last year they bowed to pressure to provide more stable scheduling after an in-depth article revealed the chaos scheduling software can cause for employees and their families. Even Wal-Mart is increasing wages. These changing practices from mega-employers will have a positive ripple effect on the labor market. And while cultural shifts in expectations of employer responsibility for employee wellbeing will help, we also need policy changes to ensure that more occupations have the qualities of good jobs.