The Akron Beacon Journal

In Ohio, “too many jobs pay too little.” That is the headline from a report released last week by Policy Matters Ohio. The Cleveland-based think tank again surveyed the employment landscape and found six of the 10 most common jobs across the state pay at such a low level that a full-time worker must access food assistance to feed a family of three. This has been the discouraging pattern, the report reminding that in 2000, just four of the most common jobs put the typical worker in such a bind.

What are the most common occupations? Probably what many would expect — food preparation and serving workers, including fast food; retail sales; registered nurses; cashiers; laborers and freight, stock and material movers; office clerks; customer service representatives; waiters; janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping; and store clerks and order fillers. In 2018, 1.14 million workers held such positions across the state.

Which four would not require food assistance? Registered nurses; laborers and movers; office clerks and customer service representatives. Yet of these occupations, registered nurses alone exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or the level up to which many experts recommend public assistance for covering the cost of child care.

As the report notes, Ohio has recovered the jobs lost in the Great Recession, though not enough to keep pace with population growth. That doesn’t tell the whole story. Regions have recovered differently. For instance, Columbus and Cincinnati have exceeded pre-recession levels, by 139,000 jobs and 65,000 jobs, respectively. Meanwhile, Youngstown still must add 19,000 jobs to reach its pre-recession mark.

What steps should follow so more Ohioans are working for wages that do not require public assistance to cover necessities? Policy Matters offers a set of prescriptions, including an improved minimum wage, repairs to the unemployment compensation system, paid leave and greater investment in training, education, child care and public transit. Research shows the minimum wage can be raised without harming the overall economy, even delivering positive results.

The policy ideas point to something else — the larger economic realities at work, even in a stronger performing economy overall.

Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution has been writing lately about why it has become harder to deliver what people want, a job with a fair wage. He cites, among other things, the weaker link between productivity growth and wage growth. He points to the diminishing clout, or bargaining power, of workers in the marketplace, driven, in part, by a “reserve army” of workers, millions having dropped out of the work force. There is also the muscle of fewer and bigger companies, plus the complication of policymakers at the state and federal levels having yet to make sufficient investments to upgrade training and education.

Reeves adds that the share of income going to workers has dropped from 64 percent in 1974 to 57 percent in 2017.

All of this calls for measures to bolster the position of lower-paid workers, or do more to restore the social contract that long promised: Work hard, and you will receive a decent wage. For many Ohioans, that isn’t the case today.