In May, unemployment shrank to a mere 3.8%, but that doesn’t mean affording kids is getting any easier.
The May job numbers came out, to the delight of many: unemployment is at a record low, dropping to 3.8%, a level we’ve seen only once since 1969. Yet wages aren’t rising nearly as fast as one would expect in a market where employers should be competing to attract workers. Stagnant pay, rising costs, and the shrinking commons means that affording kids is getting harder, not easier. How can that be?
Ever since our ancestors moved en masse to the cities to look for factory jobs in the industrializing economy, most of us have been dependent upon the grace of the economy in order to support our families. As the balance of power swings between workers and employers, so too does our ability to take care of ourselves and each other. When labor is strong and allowed to bargain collectively, it was easier to support a family with blue-collar wages. Affording kids (and everything else) is much harder when the power lies with employers, who can lay off desperate employees, automate and send jobs offshore, and demand severe concessions from workers who are glad to have a paycheck at all. The pendulum should be swinging back to the advantage of workers in a tight labor market, but it’s not.
One reason it’s not working out for us is plain old common economic sense: capitalism requires a certain level of unemployment so that innovative entrepreneurs or growing firms can draw from a pool of willing, cheap workers. Think of these unemployed as the human sacrifices that allow the system to prosper (at least until other problems pile up to a level too high to continue ignoring). If job seekers fail to educate or train themselves to the specifications that employers find attractive, victim-blaming allows the rest of society to condone a system that makes this demand, even if college or technical training isn’t within the reach of the folks we write off so easily. So many like to think that affording kids is a reward for society’s winners, even if it means living with the consequences of children who grow up playing in sewage-filled yards.
Another reason is that the economically powerful prefer to keep inflation low. If unemployment falls to the level where wages must be raised to attract workers, that can only be allowed to eat into profits for so long before prices have to go up. This kickstarts an economic spiral that corrodes the value of money as we need more of it to buy everything, and if inflation gets too high, it’s the Federal Reserve’s job to hit the economy on the head with a rock, so to speak, increasing unemployment in order to keep the wealth of the wealthy worth something. Affording kids is part of the reasoning behind the “fight for $15” as well as the argument against the inflation it may cause.
Those inflation and wages numbers are important because in richer countries, we like buying lots of stuff. In a great many households, it’s the norm for children to have more toys than they have room to put them away. Just as in Adam Smith’s day, being socially acceptable meant owning a linen shirt, today it means roomfuls of playthings, piles of clothes, diapers, educational enrichment activities, vehicles, and, one hopes, a working septic or sewer system. It varies by community and social class, of course, but even the fact that affording kids is cheaper the lower in status you go belies the idea that anyone in America can climb from impoverished zero to wealthy hero.
There’s one more way that we make affording kids harder, and that’s dismantling the social support we extend to mothers and families in general. Not only do stagnant wages, disappearing benefits, and an increasingly precarious “gig” economy make it harder to have children, employers also make it difficult to have both a family and the career needed to support one. At the same time, there seems to be little interest on the part of a conservative administration to invest in the kind of robust commons that makes life easier and more reliable for those with little or no capital of their own.
In the end, perhaps it’s a good thing that we’re not making as many babies as we used to. While it’ll be harder to support the next generation of retirees with the next generation of workers, that means tomorrow’s workers may not face such a complex labor market to begin with. Plus, there’s that whole ecological benefit to look forward to, leaving a more livable world for the ones who will have to live in it.