Employment & Productivity

In the Labor Force & in Poverty

According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report there were 34.0 million people, or 10.5% of the population, living below the poverty level in the United States in 2019. Although these are “primarily” adults who are not in the labor force, and children, 6.3 individuals constitute the working poor, those who were in the labor force for at least 27 weeks, working or looking for work, but whose incomes remain below the poverty level. But, that population as a share of all individuals who were in the force for the requisite weeks, fell to 4.0% in 2019, the lowest in the series that goes back to 1986, from 4.5% in 2018. In 1986 the rate was 6.2%, dropped and then rose to 6.7% in 1993, fell into 2001, topped out at 7.2% in 2010, and has been steadily falling with a mini plateau in 2017-18.

Full-time employment (FT) helps a lot, with only 2.7% of those working FT among the working poor, but 9.8% of those working part-time. Women are “more likely” to be among the working poor, 4.5%, than men, 3.5%, and Blacks and Latinos are “much more likely” than Whites and Asians to be so classified. 2.3% of Asian workers earn wages below the poverty level, as do 3.5% of White workers, 7.0 of Hispanic workers, and 7.2% of Black workers. Asian men, 2.4%. have a higher rate than women, 2.3%, but rates for women are higher in all other demographics. The highest rate, 14.5%, is among black women aged 24 to 34 or in their teenaged years, followed by Black men aged 20-24, 10.7%.

Education matters, but it’s no shoo-in. About eleven percent of white workers with four years of high school yet no diploma earn poverty wages, as do 22% of Blacks, 13.9% of Hispanics, and 7.5% of Asians. Overall, only 1.4% of those with Bachelor’s degrees are among the working poor, no difference between men and women. Although white women with BAs are only 0.1pps more likely to be in poverty than men, 1.4%, 1.9% of Black women with college degrees rank among the working poor, as do 0.8% of men, the smallest share. That breakout is reversed among Asian workers, with women at 0.9%, while among Hispanic workers, women are above, 1.9%, and men a bit below, 1.6%, the average, 1.7%.
One fifth of families maintained by women with a child under 18, a demographic we and many others consider highly motivated, earn wages beneath the poverty line, more than twice the share of families maintained by men, 9%. Families with children under 18 and one person in the labor force were five times as likely to live in poverty as those without children.

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Advanced Degree Holders Tell a Story

In October 2020, the percentage of high-school graduates enrolled in colleges and universities had fallen to 62.7%, from October 2019’s 66.2%, while the percentage of 2020 college graduates aged 20 to 29 who were employed fell to 67.3% from the prior year’s 76%, declines the Bureau of Labor Statistics attributes to the effects of the pandemic.

Among those who recently received an Associate’s Degree, 59.2% overall are employed, and 15.8% unemployed. Among men, however, 55.2% are employed and 26.5% unemployed, while among women, 61.4% are employed and just 9.1% unemployed, with the labor force participation rate for women, 67.6%, seven percentage points lower than it is for men.

For those with Bachelor’s degrees, 67.3% are currently employed, including 67.6% of men, and 67.1% of women, with a smaller disparity in unemployment, 16.1% for men, and 10.2% among women.

Among those with advanced degrees the situation is a bit different. Overall, 74.7% are employed, including 68.5% of men, and 80.1% of women (which is about the participation rate for men with BAs), with unemployment rates running at 17.8% for men, compared to 12.6% overall, and 8.4% for women. And for this tranche, the percentage of women not in the labor force is one point below the overall 14%, while that of men is a few points above. Among those with Associate’s degrees, the percentage of women out of the force is 7 points above that of men, in turn 5 points below the overall, and for those with BAs, the rate for women is 5 points above that of men, and two points above the total.

As a point of comparison, in October 2020 the overall unemployment rate was 6.9% overall, 6.7% for men over 20, slightly higher for those over 16, 6.5% for women over twenty, and 6.7% for those over 16.
Over the years many have commented that one way to close the gender wage gap is for more women to obtain advanced degrees, and although wage data is not included in the BLS release, the relative shares employed and in the labor force seem to underscore that point.

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A Multi-Century Elevator Ride

In the late 1800s, Native Americans told naturalists working in Alaska that the marbled murrelet, a small seabird that flies underwater when fishing, breeds in the ancient forest. Apparently they weren’t listening. The nesting habits of this small chunky alcid remained a mystery until the 1970s when a tree surgeon working on a damaged branch over a campground in a state redwood forest came across a nest, not a first, with a lone chick, unusual, but a chick that had webbed feet, a first.

One clue had been noticed prior to this discovery, murrelets flying up rivers miles from the ocean during breeding season, and more became apparent after. For example, the species ranges from Monterey Bay to the Aleutians, and its pelagic populations are closely correlated with proximity of old growth forests.

One of the most destructive of our many destructive economic narratives is the claim that economic and ecological outcomes are at odds. Among the most polarized, brutal, and misunderstood of battles engaged by this polarity were the Timber Wars concerning California and Oregon’s old growth forests.


Photo from San Francisco State University linked below. If anyone knows M. Hobson, the photographer, please send him or her our way.

They didn’t have to happen. The team of biologists and historians who put together Coast Redwood, A Natural and Cultural History, details how, in the 1930s, the Pacific Lumber Company, under the leadership of Stanwood Murphy, became a pioneer in sustainable timber harvesting, cutting only certain percentages of trees leaving others to hold the soil together and for future harvest. PL maintained these practices for half a century. Their timber holdings were their major asset, and their employees believed the “extensive holdings and sustained-yield logging would ensure their long-term employment.” The last Murphy to run the company said, “We were the good guys. It was fun, it was easy—it was a great life.”

In the 1980s, Pacific Lumber owned about 70% of the old growth forest held privately. Unfortunately for their employees, PL’s under-valued stock came to the attention of Houston-based Charles Hurwitz and his company, Maxxam, who financed a hostile take-over with junk bonds and, heavily levered, raided PL’s pension fund, and began selling off secondary operations, like a welding shop, and clear cutting to service the debt.

By this time the marbled murrelet’s population had been decimated by logging, declining fisheries, you name it, and its habitats were protected. When PL illegally entered those habitats to log valuable old-growth trees, the Environmental Protection and Information Center, among others, sued PL, eventually taking the suit to federal court, who sided with the environmental groups, noting PL had used “fraudulent wildlife assessing methods,” concerning murrelet populations. PLC’s licenses were revoked for “gross negligence & willful” violations of state forestry regulations, and eventually the land was purchased from PL and taken into public hands.

The marbled murrelet isn’t the only species up there. In the late 1990s researchers led by Humboldt State’s Steve Sillett began climbing into redwood crowns. (If you’ve read Richard Powers’s The Overstory you know something about this, but there’s more.) The crown of one mapped redwood contains 210 trunks and fills 32 cubic yards, the tree itself embodies over 37,000 cubic feet of wood. Within those crowns, in addition to ferns, lichens, mosses and epiphytes, huckleberries produce fruit, and some trees become natural bonsais, while others can grow to 8 feet. Wandering salamanders have been found breeding in water-logged humus mats above 200 feet. Salamanders are good climbers, but it is hard to imagine what would impel an individual to use the energy it would take to make that climb, and some biologists believe centuries ago salamanders climbed onto young trees and rode up as the tree grew, as did generations of offspring. There are also crustaceans and, so far, no one knows how they got there. How many STEM jobs, some entry level, could those aerial habitats also support?

Murrelets begin nesting in April, the chicks fledging at about 4 weeks. Until recently no one knew how the young birds reach the ocean. It has now been observed that they fly out of the nest and to sea alone in the evening dark, another mystery solved.

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Health effects of Confusing Absolute w/ Relative?

Dr. William Darity, in charge of many things at Duke University, has been steadily advancing his theory of stratification economics, arguing that the ability of one’s parents to contribute to one’s resources is a bigger determinant of economic outcomes than education & hard work. He refers to the fact that blacks who have completed college have only two-thirds the net worth of whites who never finished high school as “one of the most dramatic statistics we’ve discovered.” That dramatic statistic, of course, has long roots.

However, in 2019 Darity, along with epidemiologists Arjumand Siddiqi, and Odmaa Sod-Erdene of the University of Toronto, and others, dug up a worrisome misperception in their report, Growing sense of social status threat and concomitant deaths of despair among whites. Revisiting Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s white “deaths of despair,” they add a third hypothesis to the two already out there, which include either the long-term or the contemporaneous decline in economic conditions driving the alarming trend in mortality.

Darity et al. find that the rise is not restricted to the lowest education groups, but is penetrating “deeper into the education distribution,” although with the most damage occurring among those with lowest educational attainment, and argue that economics alone cannot explain the increase in mortality among whites. If that were the case, the death rate among blacks, who are experiencing “parallel trends, and at more adverse levels,” would also be rising, but it was not pre-Covid. Instead, they point out that demographic groups tend to evaluate their positions relative to other demographic groups, not their peers, and that a rising misperception among whites that their social status is being undermined is a better explanation. Racial and economic anxieties are entangled.

“For perhaps the first time, we are suggesting that a major population health phenomenon – a widespread one – cannot be explained by actual social or economic status disadvantage but instead is driven by perceived threat to status.”

They call their findings stunning and startling, and we’ll add hard to wrap your head around. But if you have the stomach to read some of the racist and anti-Semitic claims being thrown around these days, their hypothesis is definitely worth some thought.

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Racial & Ethnic Disparities in EPOP Recoveries

Employment-population ratios have been recovering: the overall EPOP had regained 54.1% of its February-April loss by September, and 62.2% through December. However, in the last two months only half the major demographic groups retained traction, so November and December overall were flat.

That’s graphed below, and here are some highlights: Men overall have gained 5.2 points of their loss, about half women’s 10-point recovery. White & Hispanic women have turned in stronger performances than men, contradicting a popular meme that played off women’s weakness in December.

Women’s EPOP fell by 10 points between February and April, and has regained 6.4%. Men lost 9.6 points and regained 5.7. But since women started with a lower EPOP than men, these translate to larger percentages. However, in December the EPOP for women was 83% of that of men, close to February’s share, after having fallen to 80% at the April low.

Racial and ethnic disparities are far greater than those of gender. Black and Latino EPOPs fell harder than whites’ and have recovered less, with black women showing the weakest recovery of any of the demographic groups shown. One thing dragging down the recovery among black workers is almost certainly the continuing decline in government employment, where they’re heavily overrepresented, with many jobs earning good pay.

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