Income gap

Since the United States has begun recovering from the 2008 recession, the jobs lost during the downturn have largely been regained – in straight numbers. Unemployment figures have steadily shrunk, even if the pace has been slower than hoped by lawmakers and those seeking work. Those numbers – the percentage of Americans seeking work who cannot find it – do not tell a more important and potentially unsettling story, though: The jobs replacing those lost in the recession pay less than their predecessors. The result is a widening and troubling income gap.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors released a stark report Monday revealing that the post-recovery jobs through June of this year pay an average of 23 percent less than their prerecession counterparts. That is owed to the loss of higher-paying skilled jobs such as construction and manufacturing jobs, which were disproportionately replaced with lower-paying vocations in the health care, administrative support and service industry. Workers without skills to qualify them for the higher-paying jobs in emerging industries are, according to the report, being left behind. The resulting income gap is not sustainable for a diversified economy populated by skilled workers.

In fact, the mayors’ report shows that the percentage of the nation’s income yielded by the top 20 percent of its earners has grown from 43.5 percent in 1975 to 51 percent in 2012 and has enjoyed 60 percent of the total income gains between 2005 and 2012. Conversely, the lowest 40 percent of earners brought in just 6.6 percent of U.S. income increases in the same period.

For those not in the top 20 percent, those figures are disheartening – even for the gainfully employed. They show that the recovery is far from complete, and there remains much work in order to prepare prerecession employees for post-recovery jobs. Doing so will require significant investment in education – something that has been elusive in Colorado, even in the best of times. While those with college education far out-earn those who lack a degree, there is a great need for technical training to help close the widening gap. As the report says, “public programs to retrain displaced workers, to add technical skills to a junior college curricula and to invest in skills training hold promise. Successful programs of this sort would raise the productivity and earnings potential of a broad class of low-wage workers.”

More fundamentally, though, education must begin earlier and in greater earnest than our current commitment level. Pre-kindergarten programs that establish lifelong learning habits are essential to preparing young people for long-term success. Those investments pay enormous dividends.

Closing the rift between the highest and lowest earners in the United States is a complex endeavor, the mere mention of which can inflame worry of class warfare. It need not be so divisive. Whether the nation’s top 1 percent or 5 percent or 20 percent is deserving of their jobs and associated wealth is not necessarily the question. What should be of greater concern is how to position the remaining 99 percent or 95 percent or 80 percent to join their ranks. For that, we have a long – and lengthening – way to go.

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