In these polarized times, one area of bipartisan agreement is the need to address the large number of people who have been “left behind” as jobs have gone overseas or simply ceased to exist because of automation.
Although unemployment rates are at record lows, stagnant real wage performance — the median real weekly wages for men working full-time have not grown at all since 1980 — has added to the sense that people are falling further behind.
Focusing only on low income levels misses the full extent of the problem. For many Americans, lower wages and less job security reduce their sense of dignity and purpose, especially when they can no longer provide for their family’s basic needs or have left the labor market. One consequence has been deteriorating health and a dramatic rise in deaths from suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning.
The underlying problem is not lack of jobs — more than 6 million jobs, many high paying, are unfilled according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many go unfilled because applicants lack the necessary skills for them. For example, a small manufacturer with 100 employees in Milwaukee has 9 open positions (almost 10 percent of total positions and over 10 percent of those on the shop floor), some of which have been posted for over a year and pay over $25 per hour. Most applicants lacked the skills or desire to work in a factory setting. The losers are the applicants and local economies across the country.
A popular solution is to raise the minimum wage, through either legislation or voluntary company action (e.g., Amazon). Although this helps people to meet basic needs, it rarely provides a living wage, especially in high-cost areas like Collier County. It also does not begin to address the sense of dignity associated with a good job.
A better solution has been advanced by Kenneth Scheve and Matthew Slaughter in a Foreign Affairs article entitled “How to Save Globalization: Rebuilding America’s Ladder of Opportunity.” The authors recommend a “lifelong ladder of opportunity” built around investments in people. Such investments strongly determine an individual’s chances of thriving in a dynamic economy.
The first rung in the ladder is early childhood education from birth to kindergarten. Studies by Nobel laureate James Heckman and others concluded that the benefits of early childhood education were seven times as high as the costs, a spectacular return on investment.
Although Collier County is largely a service-based economy with low wages, the future may well be different. There is a need to diversify the local economy so it is sustainable year-round. Arthrex’s expansion ended up in South Carolina, in part because Collier did not have an appropriate-skilled workforce. So Collier would also benefit from building ladders of opportunity.
Many experts believe Collier falls woefully short in early childhood education. Though local organizations and individuals are working hard, approximately one-half of children in Collier County are not ready for kindergarten based on the Florida Assessment of Kindergarten Readiness.
Funding by federal and state governments is very limited. The state only provides half-day funding for 4-year-olds. There is more funding for the children under 4 years old, but only if the family income is under 150 percent of the poverty level. Local foundations make up some of the gap, but bottom line over 4,000 low-income children under the age of 4 are not enrolled in early childhood education programs. This is due to a variety of barriers such as affordability, geographical inaccessibility and cultural factors.
All of these barriers can be overcome if the public, private and nonprofit sectors work together and use creativity and the appropriate resources to do so. It is time to get started!
Written by Seymour Burchman, a CCCR Board Member.