The Growing Plight of the American Working Class

Michigan Condensed Milk Factory
Image via Creative Commons

Since the 1970s in America the living conditions for the working class have been declining. This decline in living conditions is caused by many interdependent components working in unison. Worker productivity has continued to rise, but the average real wages of workers have stagnated. Along with the crisis of wage stagnation the working class is struggling to afford basic necessities. The prices of rent, food, and healthcare continue to rise, but the workers’ wages remain the same. The combination of these factors is creating an unsustainable crisis for the working class. In order to combat this the working class needs to band together and make use of their collective power. I can get involved by raising awareness about the struggles of the working class, and the power they hold if wielded properly. I can do this by creating flyers that discuss the problems that we currently face, and how those problems can be solved by the collective bargaining power of a labor union. I can then hand the flyers out at public events. Secondly, I can help by actively organizing a union in my workplace.     

After the conclusion of the second World War the average real wages of the American working class closely followed the increasing worker productivity, but after the 1970s the average real wages of the workers began to stagnate even with drastic increases in worker productivity. Josh Bivens is the director of research for the economic policy institute, and he argues that “Since 1973, hourly compensation of the vast majority of American workers has not risen in line with economy-wide productivity. In fact, hourly compensation has almost stopped rising at all. Net productivity grew 72.2 percent between 1973 and 2014. Yet inflation-adjusted hourly compensation of the median worker rose just 8.7 percent, or 0.20 percent annually, over this same period, with essentially all of the growth occurring between 1995 and 2002.” Even though worker productivity has increased by an extremely large amount the average real wages have remained relatively the same. The reason behind the stagnation of average real wages is due to the lack of worker representation in the economy and the workplace. “Finally, it also seems worth noting that this decoupling coincided with the passage of many policies that explicitly aimed to erode the bargaining power of low- and moderate-wage workers in the labor market. It seems to us that this is a fruitful place to look for explanations for the gap and for policies that will shrink the gap” (Bivens). The destruction of the labor unions by American policy makers led to a drastic increase in wealth inequality.  

As a result of the global covid-19 pandemic the rate of working class Americans experiencing food insecurity has risen sharply. Julia Wolfson is a health policy researcher with the university of Michigan, and she states “One immediate consequence of the economic downturn has been apparent since the start of the pandemic. Since mid-March 2020, numerous surveys have documented unprecedented levels of food insecurity that eclipse anything seen in recent decades in the United States, including during the Great Recession. Over the past five years, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates of food insecurity in the United States have hovered around 11% to 12%. As of March and April 2020, national estimates of food insecurity more than tripled to 38%. In a national survey we fielded in March 2020 among adults with incomes less than 250% of the 2020 federal poverty level (based on thresholds from the US Census), 44% of all households were food insecure including 48% of Black households, 52% of Hispanic households, and 54% of households with children.” The economic impact of the covid-19 pandemic has severely worsened the pre-existing food crisis in America. Prior to the covid-19 pandemic the working class in America was already experiencing a tough economic situation, but with the economic fallout of the covid-19 pandemic the living conditions of the working class have become intolerable. 

Over the past two decades the average price of rent in America has been rising at a rate faster than income growth. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, “In 2015, rental housing in America is a tale of two markets, where upper-income renters are finding a healthier supply of housing choices and landlords and private sector investors are benefiting from higher rents, but too many families earning less than $50,000 per year are having to make trade-offs between putting a roof over their heads and food on the table. These negative trends are poised to go from bad to worse, as the most cost-burdened populations – minorities and the elderly – grow, and incomes continue to grow more slowly than rental costs.” A combination of stagnating wages and increasing rent costs is creating an unsustainable dilemma for the working class. This highlights one of the major contradictions of the system as it currently exists. With rent consuming an ever-larger share of working-class incomes many families are forced to pay rent at the expense of other life sustaining necessities. It is also important to point out that rising rent costs are unrelated to supply with many rentable houses remaining vacant. Kirk McClure is a professor for the University of Kansas, and he specializes in urban planning he argues that “In 6 of the 7 years following the housing bubble, housing production outpaced household formation. Over the post-bubble period, for every 100 households added to the population, 124 units were added to the stock. Not only is the housing industry slow to respond to changing market conditions, it appears prone to overbuilding.” The production of new houses after 2008 has consistently exceeded the rate at which new households are being formed, but rent costs continue to rise. 

Due to rising health care costs many working-class Americans are forced to live without affordable access to healthcare and medication. Shelly Lyford is the president and chief executive officer for the west health institute, and she states “Simply put, Americans are burdened with the world’s costliest healthcare: in 2017, the United States spent $10,739 per person on care, more than any other country by far. At that cost, people in our nation should have the longest and healthiest lives. Yet the United States consistently ranks near the bottom of major health indices among developed nations, including life expectancy and infant mortality” American health care prices are unmatched by any other country in the world, but the increased price does not correlate with increased effectiveness. Even in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century millions of American workers are struggling to afford adequate health care.  

Labor unions and collective bargaining provide the means through which the working class can advance its interests. As a result of the lack of worker representation in the workplace the concerns and grievances of many individual workers are easily swept under the rug. Peter McEachern is a master’s degree student at George Mason University, and he states that “Union members are better paid than their nonunion counterparts (Hirsch, 2004) and receive better fringe benefits, such as employer-provided health insurance and pensions (Buchmueller et al., 2004). Unions improve job safety, reduce occupational stress, and help create more cohesive organizational cultures (Baugher & Timmons Roberts, 2004; Hagedorn et al., 2016).” Union membership provides workers with a greater income, less stress, and greater benefits. The democratization of the workplace allows for the working class to further advance their interests. 

There are several methods through which I can help bring change locally. I can make short and simple flyers that would highlight the main problems that the working class currently face. The flyers would discuss wage stagnation, food insecurity, rent affordability, and health care affordability. After the main problems have been highlighted; I would write about how union members experience greater benefits when compared to non-union members. Another thing I can do to bring change is organizing a union in my workplace. By directly showing the benefits of union membership I could advance the class consciousness of my co-workers. 

The working class is experiencing a period of difficulty unseen in America since the great depression. A combination of wage stagnation and the rising costs of basic necessities is making the situation in need of urgent attention. The dilemma currently facing the working class seems almost insurmountable, but it can be alleviated. With a combination of grassroots worker and minority lead mass movements, and workplace democratization the working class is capable of advancing its interests. 

Works Cited 

Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. “Record Number of Renter Households Face Severe Affordability Problems, As Rents Grow Faster Than Incomes and Increased Supply Fails to Meet Demand.” Business Wire, 2015 Sept.   

Josh, Bivens, and Mishel Lawrence. “Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Workers Pay.” Economic Policy Institute, 2 Sept. 2015. 

Lyford, Shelley, and Timothy A. Lash. “America’s Healthcare Cost Crisis: As the Costs of U.S. Healthcare Continue to Escalate, Three Commonsense Reforms Could Reverse This Unsustainable Trend.” Generations, Dec. 2019. 

McClure, Kirk. “The Allocation of Rental Assistance Resources: The Paradox of High Housing Costs and High Vacancy Rates.” International Journal of Housing Policy, vol. 19, no. 1, 2019, pp. 69–94. EBSCOhost, doi: 

McEachern, Peter J, and Christopher J. Budnick. “Socioeconomic Differences in Worker Involvement in Labor Union Activities.” Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, vol. 25, June 2020, pp. 278–290. EBSCOhost, doi:10.24839/2325-7342.JN25.3.278. 

Wolfson, Julia A, and Cindy W. Leung. “Food Insecurity During COVID-19: An Acute Crisis With Long-Term Health Implications.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 110, no. 12, Dec. 2020, pp. 1763–1765. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2020.305953.