Missing the Economic Glory Year of...1979?

Economics reporter Louis Uchitelle earns his "gloomy Louie" moniker in his latest long requiem for the American worker, unable to reach the middle-class.

In Uchitelle's Sunday Week in Review story, "The Wage That Meant Middle Class," there's the seemingly obligatory citing of the left-wing Economic Policy Institute (with no ideological label applied), a baleful warning of "dollars missing from paychecks," and a class-based, us-and-them view of the world where workers "acquiesce" to the Man and sullenly swallow lower wages. (In 2006 Uchitelle wrote a book with similar themes, "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences.")

Whatever Senator Barack Obama meant by his less than artful remarks about small-town Pennsylvanians "bitter" over lost jobs, he certainly turned a lot of attention last week to the decline of the American worker, bitter or not.

The talk most often has been of shuttered factories, layoffs, outsourcing and other effects of globalization, especially in a state like Pennsylvania, which has lost tens of thousands of industrial jobs. But there is another way to look at blue-collar workers or their counterparts in the service sector.

Leaving aside for a moment those who have lost their jobs, what of those who still have them? Once upon a time, a large number earned at least $20 an hour, or its inflation-adjusted equivalent, and now so many of them don't.

The $20 hourly wage, introduced on a huge scale in the middle of the last century, allowed masses of Americans with no more than a high school education to rise to the middle class. It was a marker, of sorts. And it is on its way to extinction.

Americans greeted the loss with anger and protest when it first began to happen in big numbers in the late 1970s, particularly in the steel industry in Western Pennsylvania. But as layoffs persisted, in Pennsylvania and across the country, through the '80s and '90s and right up to today, the protests subsided and acquiescence set in.


...the percentage of people earning at least $20 an hour has eroded in every sector of the economy, falling last year to 18 percent of all hourly workers from 23 percent in 1979 - a gradual unwinding of the post-World War II gains.


Put givebacks on the list as well. Tens of thousands of workers have accepted wage cuts pressed on them by embattled employers, cuts that in many cases pushed their wages below middle-class levels. Flight attendants are a notable example. And as each new group acquiesces, the standard for what constitutes an acceptable wage comes down in America.

As usual with the one-track Uchitelle, there is no mention of countervailing benefits for workers in terms of increased health benefits or the explosion of 401-K pension plans since 1979. He ignores the massive improvements of lifestyle (how much is out there to buy)since that glorious year (the one with 11% inflation, recordgas prices,and a higher unemployment rate than today). The intervening 29 years has been nothing but a slow decline for workers.