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Friday, March 22, 2013

'Focusing on Low- and Moderate-Income Working Americans'

It's nice to see the Fed thinking in these terms. This is from a speech by Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin:

Focusing on Low- and Moderate-Income Working Americans: ... Challenges Posed by Labor Market Conditions
The Great Recession stands out for the magnitude of job losses we experienced throughout the downturn. These factors have hit low- and moderate-income Americans the hardest. The poverty rate has risen sharply since the onset of the recession, after a decade of relative stability, and it now stands at 15 percent--significantly higher than the average over the past three decades.1 And those who are fortunate enough to have held onto their jobs have seen their hourly compensation barely keep pace with the cost of living over the past three years.2 ...
About two-thirds of all job losses resulting from the recession were in moderate-wage occupations, such as manufacturing, skilled construction, and office administration jobs. However, these occupations have accounted for less than one-quarter of subsequent job gains. The declines in lower-wage occupations--such as retail sales and food service--accounted for about one-fifth of job loss, but a bit more than one-half of subsequent job gains. Indeed, recent job gains have been largely concentrated in lower-wage occupations such as retail sales, food preparation, manual labor, home health care, and customer service.3
Furthermore, wage growth has remained more muted than is typical during an economic recovery. To some extent, the rebound is being driven by the low-paying nature of the jobs that have been created. ... In fact, while average wages have continued to increase steadily for persons who have remained employed all along, the average wage for new hires have actually declined since 2010.4
The faces of low-wage Americans are diverse. They include people of varying employment status, race, gender, immigration status, and other characteristics. Many such Americans are attached to the workforce and are deeply committed to both personal success and to making a contribution to society. For purposes of reference, in 2011, low wage was defined as $23,005 per year or $11.06 per hour.5
Today, about one-quarter of all workers are considered "low wage." They are sanitation workers, office receptionists, and nursing assistants; they are single mothers of three who worry: How will I be able to send my children to college? What if my landlord raises the rent this year? Tens of millions of Americans are the people who ask themselves these questions every day.
This diverse group of workers faces numerous barriers when trying to access the labor market or advance in their current positions. ...
We know, for example, that location presents thorny challenges for many low-wage workers. Within metropolitan areas, jobs are not spread out evenly and job creation tends to be depressed in low-income communities. As a result, many low-wage workers face long commutes and serious commuting difficulties due to less reliable transportation and an inadequate transportation infrastructure. Moreover, a number of low-wage employees work non-standard hours, exacerbating both transportation and childcare issues, as well as personal health problems.7
Traditionally, many workers find jobs through social networks and through personal connections that they have to the labor market. But, because low-income individuals are typically less mobile, more isolated, and less socially connected than other people, they are often left out of the social networks that, in practice, lead to jobs for most Americans. ...
[T]he 21st century labor market is increasingly complex; it continues to generate new challenges. For example, growth in sectors such as green industries and advanced manufacturing is creating jobs, but these jobs may demand different skills. Access to reliable information becomes critical for workers who are considering a new job, and must carefully weigh the skills and credentials required by potential employers with the cost of training and the likelihood of gaining employment.
And, more and more, employers are requiring post-secondary credentials. Today, a high school diploma alone is less likely to qualify an individual for a job with a path toward meaningful advancement. And, as demand for more credentials increases, workers who lack those credentials will find it increasingly difficult to gain upward mobility in the job market.
Contingent Work
Many employers are looking to make the employment relationship more flexible, and so are increasingly relying on part-time work and a variety of arrangements popularly known as "contingent work." This trend toward a more flexible workforce will likely continue. For example, while temporary work accounted for 10 percent of job losses during the recession, these jobs have accounted for more than 25 percent of net employment gains since the reces­sion ended.10 In fact, temporary help is rapidly approaching a new record, and businesses' use of staffing services continues to increase.11
Contingent employment is arguably a sensible response to today's competitive marketplace. Contingent arrangements allow firms to maximize workforce flexibility in the face of seasonal and cyclical forces. The flexibility may be beneficial for workers who want or need time to address their family needs. However, workers in these jobs often receive less pay and fewer benefits than traditional full-time or "permanent" workers, are much less likely to benefit from the protections of labor and employment laws, and often have no real pathway to upward mobility in the workplace.12
Many workers who hold contingent positions do so involuntarily. Department of Labor statistics tell us that 8 million Americans say they are working part-time jobs but would like full-time jobs.13 These are the people in our communities who are "part time by necessity." As businesses increase their reliance on independent contractors and part-time, temporary, and seasonal positions, workers today bear far more of the responsibility and risk for managing their careers and financial security. Indeed, the expansion of contingent work has contributed to the increasing gap between high- and low-wage workers and to the increasing sense of insecurity among workers.14
Flexible and part-time arrangements can present great opportunities to some workers, but the substantial increase in part-time workers does raise a number of concerns. Part-time workers are particularly vulnerable to personal shocks due to lower levels of compensation, the absence of meaningful benefits, and even a lack of paid sick or personal days. Not surprisingly, turnover is high in these part-time jobs.
Access to Credit
The economic marginalization that comes with the growth of part-time and low-paying jobs is exacerbated by inadequate access to credit for many working Americans. Ideally, people chronically short of cash would have access to safe and sound financial institutions that could provide reliable and affordable access to credit as well as good savings plans. Unfortunately, many working Americans have no practical access to reasonably priced financial products with safe features, much less the kind of safe and fair credit that is available to wealthier consumers.
Working Americans have several core financial needs. They need a safe, accessible, and affordable method to deposit or cash checks, receive deposits, pay bills, and accrue savings. They may also need access to credit to tide them over until their next cash infusion arrives. They may be coming up short on paying their rent, their mortgage, an emergency medical expense, or an unexpected car repair. They may want access to a savings vehicle that, down the road, will help them pay for these items and for education or further training, or start a business. And many want some form of non-cash payment method to conduct transactions that are difficult or impossible to conduct using cash.
Products and services that serve these core financial needs are not consistently available at competitive rates to working Americans. Those with low and moderate incomes may have insufficient income or assets to meet the relatively high requirements needed to establish a credit history. Others may have problems in their credit history that inhibit their ability to borrow on competitive terms.
Many workers simply may not have banks in their communities, or may not have access to banks that actually compete with each other in terms of pricing or customer service. There is a growing trend toward greater concentration of financial assets at fewer banks. In my mind, this raises doubts about whether banking services will continue to be provided at competitive rates to all income levels of customers wherever they may live. ... While branch-building has been on the rise, indications are that the increase in the number of bank offices has not occurred evenly across neighborhoods of varying income.15
In fact, a significant number of low- and moderate-income families have become--or are at risk of becoming--financially marginalized. The percentage of families earning $15,000 per year or less who reported that they have no bank account increased between 2007 and 2009 such that more than one in four families was unbanked. Families slightly further up the income distribution, earning between $25,000 and $30,000 per year, are also financially marginalized: 13 percent report being unbanked and almost 24 percent report being underbanked.16
This combination of economic insecurity and financial marginalization has incentivized more low- and moderate-income families to seek out alternative financial service providers to meet their financial needs. Some of the providers they find, such as check-cashers and outfits furnishing advance loans on paychecks, can lead unwary workers into very deep financial holes. ...
There is no simple cure to these conditions, but government policymakers need to focus seriously on the problems, not simply because of notions of fairness and justice, but because the economy's ability to produce a stable quality of living for millions of people is at stake. Our country cannot achieve prosperity without addressing the powerful undertow created by flat wages and tenuous financial security for so many millions of Americans.
The Role of Monetary Policy
So how can the Federal Reserve address these challenges? Let me start with monetary policy. Congress has directed the Federal Reserve to use monetary policy to promote maximum employment and price stability. The Federal Reserve's primary monetary policy tool is its ability to influence the level of interest rates. Federal Reserve policymakers pushed short-term interest rates down nearly to zero as the financial crisis spread and the recession worsened in 2007 and 2008. By late 2008, it was clear that still more policy stimulus was necessary to turn the recession around. The Federal Reserve could not push short-term interest rates down further, but it could--and did--use the unconventional policy tools to bring longer-term interest rates such as mortgage rates down further.
Fed policymakers intend to keep interest rates low for a considerable time to promote a stronger economic recovery, a substantial improvement in labor market conditions, and greater progress toward maximum employment in a context of price stability. Both anecdotal evidence and a wide range of economic indicators show that these attempts are working to strengthen the recovery and that the labor market is improving.
Nonetheless, and again, the millions of people who would prefer to work full time can find only part-time work. While the Federal Reserve's monetary policy tools can be effective in promoting stronger economic recovery and job gains, they have little effect on the types of jobs that are created, particularly over the longer term. So, while monetary policy can help, it does not address all of the challenges that low- and moderate-income workers are confronting. That said, the existing mandate regarding maximum employment requires policymakers on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to understand labor market dynamics, which obviously must include an understanding of low- and moderate-income workers.
Regulatory and Supervisory Touchpoints
In addition to monetary policy, the Federal Reserve's regulatory and supervisory policies have the potential to address some of the challenges faced by low-income communities and consumers. ... If banking practices are undermining the ability of the economically marginalized to become financially included and to access the credit they need in an affordable way, regulators must move in quickly...
Swift and decisive corrective action is not always how federal bank regulators have responded ... in the past. In my view, for example, regulators' response to the rampant, long-running problems in loan-servicing practices at large financial institutions was not swift and was not decisive. ...

    Posted by on Friday, March 22, 2013 at 02:12 PM in Economics, Fed Speeches, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (15)


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