Abera Slyoum’s story could break your heart. Gail Rosenblum told his story in the Star Tribune this week. Thank you, Gail. We need more such storytelling.
Abera Slyoum works two jobs, 60 hours a week.
“Every morning, he wakes up at 2:45 to get to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by 4 a.m. There, he works as a $7.25-an-hour cart driver until 12:30 p.m. He then goes home to spend time with his family before starting his second job at 3:30 p.m. as a $12.85-an-hour security guard.
“He was working 76 hours a week until the security company cut 16 hours from his schedule. That meant a stinging loss of about $200 a week.”
Slyoum is glad that Minnesota’s minimum wage will rise to $7.50 an hour by 2016. Not that it will help him much. Rosenblum explains:
While the wage increase will benefit more than 325,000 Minnesotans, “it will not stop most of us from working two jobs to cover the rent,” said Siyoum, of St. Paul.
We need Slyoum’s story. We need the stories that teach us the real tragedies of our economy. Barbara Garson tells a lot of those stories in Down the Up Escalator, which I highly recommend. She begins with Duane, who was “a workingman, part of a two-income family, who kept ahead of off-shoring, kept ahead of automation, worked for four decades, and died with no savings, negative equity in his house, and a $ 6,000 credit card debt.” The credit card debt, his son explained, was from moving to get a better job — Duane was never into what he called “consumerism” or items like big-screen televisions.
Garson’s book describes the Great Recession that is current, or that ended in 2009, depending on your perspective and your place in the economy.
“Corporate profits were 25– 30 percent higher at the official end of the Great Recession than before its onset. Meanwhile, wages as a share of national income fell to 58 percent. That’s the lowest the wage share of income had been since it began to be recorded after World War II.
The Financial Times (my source for these statistics) calculated that “if wages were at their postwar average share of 63 percent, U.S. workers would earn an extra $ 740bn this year  or about $ 5000 per worker.” Garson, Barbara (2013-04-02). Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession (p. 263-4). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Previous recessions were V-shaped — steeply down and then back up — or U-shaped—more gradual movement but still in the same directions — or W-shaped — in the dreaded double-dip recession.
None of those shapes fits our current Great Recession. This one has two different shapes simultaneously. There’s a V-shape for the fat cats and an L-shape of the rest of us. The stock market recovered its value. Banks recovered their profits. Investors, for the most part, saw their stocks and pension plans recover to pre-recession values. That’s the V-shape.
The L-shape is for workers and homeowners and job-seekers and students graduating into a New Normal that offers less opportunity to work and earn money than we, their parents or grandparents ever had. The L-shape describes an economy that went down and then leveled out, with wages and employment staying at a steady, lower rate.
“How many more recessions and jobless recoveries can we cycle through? How many times can we emerge with the rich richer, the poor poorer, and more of the middle class marginalized? Are there any inherent limits to inequality? What happens to a market economy when all the money winds up in one pocket?”
The answers to those questions will be decided by the policy decisions that we make. Economic cycles are not engraved in stone by some magical, supernatural hand. Economic decisions are moral decisions — like the decision to raise the minimum wage, by however inadequate an amount, or decisions on how and how much to tax and where to spend.
Abera Slyoum’s story feels like a plea and a prayer and a promise. We need more such stories — to move us to tears and to action.