Employers Are Begging for Workers. Maybe That’s a Good Thing.


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There has been a bit of panic lately over employers who say not enough people want to apply for open jobs. Are we facing a labor shortage? Have stimulus checks and expanded unemployment insurance payments created an economy full of people who don’t want to work — and who are holding back the economic recovery? That’s one theory, anyway. But it’s leading to real policy change: 25 Republican governors have cut off expanded unemployment benefits early.

You can also tell a different story: The continuing threat of the coronavirus and the ongoing traumas and child care disruptions mean lots of workers don’t feel safe taking jobs in poorly ventilated spaces. Others may be using their stimulus checks and unemployment benefits to let them find a better job than they had before the pandemic, insisting on better pay and conditions. And if so — isn’t that a policy success?

This is a moment when an implicit but ugly fact of our economy has been thrown into unusual relief: Our economy relies on poverty — or at least the threat of it — to force people to take bad jobs at low wages. This gets couched in paeans to the virtues of work, but the truth is more instrumental. The country likes cheap goods and plentiful services, and it can’t get them without a lot of people taking jobs that higher-income Americans would never, ever consider. When we begin to see glimmers of worker power in the economy, a lot of powerful people freak out, all at once.

Jamila Michener is an associate professor of government at Cornell University and a co-director of Cornell’s Center for Health Equity. She does remarkable research on the intersection of race, poverty and public policy and speaks about all of it with uncommon humanity. We discuss the role of poverty in the economy, cultural narratives around work and deservingness, why the less-well-off masses don’t band together politically, how social programs disempower and humiliate the very people they’re ostensibly supposed to help, why it would be so hard to sell a universal basic income, whether the Biden administration’s economic agenda represents a sharp break from those of past administrations and much more.


“Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism, and Unequal Politics” by Jamila Michener

Book recommendations:

Halfway Home by Reuben Miller

Root Shock by Mindy Fullilove

Poorly Understood by Mark Rank, Lawrence Eppard, and Heather Bullock

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