Economic Recovery and Social Investment: A Strategy to Create Good Jobs in the Service Sector

By Robert Kuttner
New America Foundation, Demos, November 2012

Today’s prolonged economic slump is fundamentally different from an ordinary recession. In the aftermath of a severe financial collapse, an economy is at risk of succumbing to a prolonged deflationary undertow. With asset prices reduced, the financial system damaged, unemployment high, consumer demand depressed, and businesses reluctant to invest, the economy gets stuck well below its full employment potential.

What’s needed is aggressive fiscal policy – and not the kind of fiscal policy promoted by the austerity lobby to “restore confidence” and allay supposed fears of inflation. The problem isn’t low confidence in deficit-reduction. Banks are now sitting on about $1.8 trillion in cash or government securities – because they can’t imagine where to profitably invest it. Businesses are delaying investment in expansion not because they are fretting about deficit projections for 2023. They are waiting to see customers with money to spend, and general austerity will only reduce that spending power.

But where should this fiscal policy be directed? One, obviously, is investment in a green economy and modern public infrastructure. The other – too little appreciated – is increased outlay in human services, of the sort that can create good, non-exportable jobs and improve the life prospects of the next generation, as well as provide stable, counter-cyclical sources of employment and demand. Government also has the power to structure other service-sector work as decent jobs.

Public investment, including public investment in the service sector, can help the economy climb out of the current deflationary trap – and establish a foundation for a stronger middle class in the future.

The Case for Investing in People

The economic collapse triggered by the financial crisis that exploded in September 2008 represented the collision of three trends. One was the license given to speculative finance resulting from increasingly reckless deregulation.

The second trend was the worsening income distribution.

Third, since the early 1980s, the economy has been losing good, middle class jobs, especially in manufacturing.

So where will the sources of increased demand and good, middle class jobs come from? One obvious candidate is the creation of good, professional service jobs improving the quality of education and care for the young, the old, and the sick.

We are shifting irrevocably to a service economy. But there are political choices to be made (or evaded). One path leads to an economy of minimum-wage fast food workers and security guards, many of them with temporary or part time jobs, on one extreme – and billionaire hedge fund managers and takeover artists, on the other. The other leads to a commercial sector of decent wages and terms of work and a human service sector of middle class professionals that serve social needs – which in turn make for a more productive economy and decent society.

Good Human Services as Social Investment and Economic Stimulus

Millions of jobs serving the very young, the very old and the very sick are low-wage jobs. This is a social decision, not the product of private supply and demand, because the qualifications and earnings for these occupations are set socially. A person caring for three-year-olds, for instance, can be a glorified baby sitter with minimum certification as a day care worker – or a well trained professional in child development. The job can pay minimum wage, or it can be a middle-class occupation and career. This social choice governs not just the quality of the job, but the quality of the early education given – especially to young children who begin life with fewer inherited advantages than the children of the professional class and the business elite.

A nursing home worker, likewise, can be a nurse-aide making $8 an hour, or a licensed practical nurse or trained recreation aide earning almost twice that, closer to $30,000 a year. Well-qualified and trained nursing home personnel produce not just better career opportunities and economic stimulus, but better quality of life for the elderly. Having competent staff is more efficient in the long run because there is less turnover, less need for outlays on recruitment, better morale, and fewer incidents of neglect that require far more expensive medical treatment.

I’ve done a rough, order-of-magnitude calculation and found that for an annual expenditure of about $100-$150 billion (or under one percent of GDP), we could set a national policy goal of guaranteeing that all human service jobs are professional jobs that pay at least $25,000 a year (which is itself a lower minimum bar than others have suggested). This requires professionalizing some occupations, as well as universalizing the availability of some categories of woefully underfunded services such as early education. As long as the current deflationary economy persists, this funding could come from additional government borrowing. As the economy recovers thanks to the additional stimulus, the normal increase in revenues could pay for part of the cost, supplemented by increased progressive taxation.

One of the great problems of the manufacturing economy, and of some services such as software engineering, accounting, call center work, and repair of jet engines, is that globalization allows these jobs to be done offshore by lower-paid workers. Human service jobs, by contrast, must be performed at home. If we have a national policy of guaranteeing that they are good jobs, there is no risk that they move overseas. We get the quadruple benefit of macro-economic stimulus, better jobs, better quality services, and (in the case of the young) improved lifetime opportunity and productivity.

The shift to upgrading work in the service sector, especially work in the human services, can be part of a deficit-financed macro-economic recovery strategy to address the nation’s current unemployment crisis and slow recovery. But this is not enough. It should also be part of a long-term effort to upgrade both the quality of work and of social services. The mistaken slogan of the February 2009 Recovery Act was “timely, targeted, and temporary.” That precluded any medium or long term planning. To adapt to the needs of an economy of the future, efforts to improve service sector employment need to be planned, pro-active, and permanent.…

Framing is important. Right now our nation’s fiscal problems are being framed as a budget deficit requiring austerity measures such as a decrease in spending on Medicare and Medicaid. Instead, we should be framing the problem as a need to improve our economy by establishing policies that promote and expand our service economy, especially in education and health care.

What does this have to do with single payer? Simply that an expanded and improved Medicare program covering everyone would provide an excellent avenue to expand and improve the type of health care service jobs that are discussed in this paper.

Robert Kuttner’s 11 page paper on economic recovery and social investment should be downloaded, read in its entirety, and shared with others – especially members of Congress who can’t seem to get the framing right.