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The State of Working America 2008/2009 By Jared Bernstein, Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009, 461 pp., ISBN 978-0-8014-7477-4.

  • Anthony M. Gould

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  • Anthony M. Gould
    Université Laval

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The State of Working America (2008/09) presents a no-nonsense and straight-to-the-point exposé of key facets of the United States labour market in 2008/09. The report is the latest iteration of biennial publications which have been produced since 1988 by The Economic Policy Institute. The book deals mostly with the issue of inequality and has a chapter structure which plainly reveals this emphasis. In sequential order, sections deal with: family income and its historically noteworthy failure to grow throughout the 2000s business cycle; income-class mobility; wages and the gap between productivity and compensation during economic recoveries; diminished job expectations; wealth; poverty; health and life expectancy gaps which have emerged in response to declining medical coverage; and, international comparisons. The authors articulate their argument clearly in the opening pages. Throughout the work they present evidence which supports their thesis without straying from the message. Their argument is that, over the last several decades, ordinary Americans are working harder and producing more but are not sharing in the benefits of the fruits of their labor. Rather such benefits are flowing to a small group of people; those who are – and have always been – very wealthy. The authors build the premises of this argument using economic data. Throughout its 460 pages, the book contains many statistics tables which are thematically grouped using the chapter structure.

I think the book is quite brilliant. I will not use this opportunity to attempt to be critical because any negative comments I would make would be generic and/or merely matters of opinion. Rather, I want to explain how I see the scholarly importance of the work. First, there is the issue of its key argument. The message is compelling and unassailable. Indeed, it gives a salutary reminded that the so called YOYO (You’re on your own) philosophy which is a key tenet of American capitalism may be fatally flawed. Because the argument is so clear and well grounded in research, policy makers will have difficulty ignoring it. Indeed, I think the authors have created for themselves a responsibility to follow up their analysis with a policy response; a task which I notice the Economic Policy Institute has done with its agenda for shared prosperity.

Throughout this book, the key message about economic inequality remains front and centre. However, it is supported by subsidiary points. For example, the authors demonstrate that, within the United States, income class mobility is less likely than mythology suggests. In practice, compared with other countries, an American child born to a poor family is less likely to improve their social and economic circumstances throughout their life. This supporting thesis is also well sustained by data. It is thoughtfully placed alongside other secondary arguments which focus on such things as the relationship between changes in capital (non-wage) incomes and rising overall inequality, the shifting wage/profit ratio, and inequality in life expectancy and other health outcomes. The authors prosecute their case in relation to these specific and somewhat technical matters as a means of building their overall argument.

Another reason why the book makes a seminal contribution to scholarship arises from its structure and methodology. The authors handle these elements superbly well. In relation to structure, they present a limited and defined subject area and deal with it through exhaustively analyzing each of its sub-components in a logical order. Although its chapters could be read separately and, in this sense, the book can be used as a reference, it is also true that sections are well integrated so that a more general narrative emerges when reading from cover to cover. The structure of the book should serve as a benchmark for other scholars seeking to deal with a complex and multi-faceted object of analysis. Insofar as the methodology is concerned, conclusions and insights are based principally on quantitative analysis. The data is pulled from multiple official sources. It is not over-analyzed. Rather, the authors have opted for interesting and revealing presentation of raw data as an alternative to cumbersome statistical manipulation and transformation. The text itself simply highlights key points revealed in tables and figures. Sometimes, data sources are used to make the same point in a different way. Where this occurs, it is not distracting or redundant. In dealing with the tables, the authors have made clear the boundaries between data, information and knowledge. They have carefully kept the emphasis on numbers and mostly allowed the graphs to tell the story.

I have one pseudo-criticism of the book which I hesitate to label as a criticism because I consider that, overall, the work is exceptional. I think the title is wrong. It does not do the authors justice. It suggests, at least to me, an almanac or perhaps a perfunctory cross-sectional portrayal of the American workplace. But the book is the antithesis of a directory. Rather, the work addresses trends and context. It conveys a sense of how societal values and philosophies are manifesting as labor market outcomes. In so doing, its argument(s) could not be more explicit. My advice to the authors would be that the next edition of their book should have a different and more animated title.

The authors of the State of Working America know how to communicate statistics about the economy. The evidence they present is well contextualized and handled with a deft touch. Of course, there are risks in reading economic data. However this book avoids, what I consider to be, the more obvious traps: non-sequitors; favouring certain results over others without rationale; making unjustified casual inferences; and/or over-analysis. In essence, the authors have taken a back-seat with this work; minimizing the narrative and interpretation but rather arranging data so that it speaks for itself. The outcome of their style is a message which is dispassionate and straightforward. Beyond its arguments, this book represents best practice in social-science research. It should be mandatory reading for policy makers. It would also be valuable for social science researchers and PhD students searching for a benchmark of a great dissertation.