Action Alert

The State of Employment in Our States: Finding a Job is Like Finding a Needle in a Haystack

“Living Just Enough for the City”*

The State of Employment in Our States: Finding a Job is Like Finding a Needle in a Haystack
United Methodist Women members and community activists march for justice during Assembly 2014.

Although there have been improvements in the U.S. economy (14 consecutive quarters of economic growth, 29 consecutive months of net job creation, and the lowest national unemployment rate in more than four years), average Americans are still feeling the impact of the economic recession that struck the U.S. and the global community in 2008. There are still 3.4 million Americans who have been out of work for over six months — more than double of pre-recession levels, and many states’ actions have not helped the process. In North Carolina, the General Assembly passed a measure reducing unemployment insurance payments from a maximum of $500 to $350 per week. The bill also shortened the length of time someone could receive unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 12-20 weeks.

The national unemployment rate has been on the decline in recent months, dropping from 6.7 percent in March to 6.3 percent in May. Some point to this statistic as a sign that the American economy is improving, but others say it is more likely a consequence of those in the unemployed sector no longer actively looking for jobs. And while the overall unemployment rate has descended to 6.3 percent, the unemployment rate for the black community stands at 11.6 percent, which is the highest among all demographics and is higher than the national peak of 10.0 percent in 2009, directly following the economic recession.

Increasing the Minimum Wage

Following the president’s proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10/hour by 2015 for all federal workers, several state legislatures across the nation have adopted similar means to try and tackle growing income disparities. As of January 1, 2014, there are now 21 states that have adopted a higher minimum wage than the federally mandated $7.25/hour. At the forefront of this trend is the city of Seattle, which in June raised its minimum wage to $15/hour making it the highest hourly wage paid in the country. Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island legislatures also voted to raise the minimum hourly wage by as much as $1, to $8 - $8.70. In California, a $1 increase to $9 is scheduled for July 1. Smaller automatic increases will occur in nine other states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Critics of this approach claim that by simply raising the minimum wage states will not effectively solve the problem of unemployment, but rather exacerbate it. Some feel that business owners will either have to lay off more workers or increase consumer prices in order to compensate for the greater financial burden of a mandated wage increase. Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute says, "If your costs are going up and you can't raise prices, you have to find a way to produce the same product at a lower cost."

Dramatic Cuts

Other states have responded to the economic downturn by decreasing costs and making dramatic cuts to some programs. The federally funded Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program benefits have been decreased in South Carolina, California, District of Columbia, Washington and New Mexico. An estimated 700,000 families nationally depend on this assistance for their vital needs. TANF is predominantly federally funded from an inadequate block grant that has not been increased or adjusted for inflation since it was created in 1966. States like Arizona have shortened their lifetime TANF benefit time limits, which has resulted in thousands of impoverished families being completely cut off from receiving further assistance.

These unprecedented deep cuts are devastating to low-income families, and our most vulnerable populations are likely to bear the brunt of these fiscal austerity measures. Nationally, more than 21 million children (one in four) live in households that receive SNAP benefits, and 80 percent of those homes have a monthly income below the federal poverty line. Collectively, over 5 million children in states such as Texas, New York, Florida and California would be negatively impacted by the SNAP benefit reductions. For mothers with children, the situation is not looking any better. The rate of mothers actively searching for work in 2013 was 69.9 percent; if unwed, mothers had a higher rate of 74.2 percent. Statistics also show that women with younger children are less likely to work and therefore more dependent on additional income from a partner or public benefits such as SNAP. With the massive reductions in these public benefits, women are forced to find alternative ways to feed their families.

According to Betsy Strauss, program manager at Alamance County’s Women’s Resource Center, unemployment benefits can be a lifesaver for women with children to raise. Without these benefits, many women and their children face homelessness. “They become homeless, or they manage to get into a shelter, or they are going from friend to friend or relative to relative,” explains Strauss. In some cases, potential reductions in state unemployment insurance benefits under newly adopted policies reach into the thousands of dollars, which is a major blow for the out-of-work residents of some states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates reductions in annual SNAP benefits in many states will rise above $100 million dollars. States that would see this dramatic decrease in benefits from November 2013 through September 2014 include (in millions of dollars): Arizona (-$109), California (-$457), Florida (-$379), Georgia (-$210), Illinois (-$220), Michigan (-$183), New York (-$332), North Carolina (-$166), Ohio (-$193), Pennsylvania (-$183), Tennessee (-$141), Texas (-$411) and Washington (-$114).

In some cities, municipal practices favoring the corporate sector are adding to income and housing inequalities, causing gentrification and displacement of lower income families. Such is the case in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, where some city policies, which include tax breaks and incentives aimed at tech giants like Google, Apple and Twitter, have led to increased rents and property taxes to the dismay of many residents of the area. While the tech firms may be bringing high-income computer-based jobs to the bay area, they are also driving up housing costs and eviction rates for long-time residents. Demonstrators recently blocked Google and Apple shuttle buses carrying employees from San Francisco some 30 miles to their respective work sites. Blockades were set up to halt the Google bus service, which some say unfairly makes free use of public bus stops, and to demand more affordable housing. The tech giant has responded to demands by offering to subsidize a year of bus fare for the city’s low-income children. Critics of the proposal say Google is attempting to divert the issue by using children to play on the public’s sympathies.

Support from the Faith Community

Fortunately, where the state and municipal legislatures have fallen short, the faith community has stepped up. Supporting residents in the Bay Area through difficult times has been a focus of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and its affiliated organizations in the area. Organizations like Glide operate in the Tenderloin district, assisting people by seeking to fulfill its mission of “alleviating suffering and breaking the cycles of poverty and marginalization.” Through programs, support groups, and facilities like the Family, Youth and Childcare Center, Glide provides resource, food, and employment assistance to hundreds of parishioners and community members. Reductions to federal assistance programs like SNAP and TANF, combined with cuts to unemployment insurance for millions of out of work Americans, is creating a dire situation in our nation. We must act to ensure the most in-need and vulnerable sectors of society are not sacrificed in an attempt to balance the national checkbook.

*From Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” 1973

Posted or updated: 8/11/2014 11:00:00 PM

Suggested Pages:

*Responding to Inequality

*Action Alerts

*Economic Justice

Did You Know?

  • 45 percent of Americans live in households that lack economic security incomes.
  • 74 percent of survivors stayed with an abuser longer due to financial issues.
  • 50 percent of elder women face economic insecurity in retirement.
  • Expanding women’s access to non-traditional jobs can increase their earnings by at least 30 percent.

Take Action

  • Contact your Congressional representative (Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121) and urge them to support H.R. 4591 – The Workforce Investment and Job Creation Act (2014), which would establish a national strategy for identifying job training needs in order to increase opportunities for technical school training and promote hiring.
  • Read the new book by Mary Gatta, All I Want is a Job, which chronicles the experiences of women navigating unemployment and the public workforce system.
  • Read “Pathways to Economic Justice,” #4054, pages 560-563, in The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012).
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