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What Trump's Vision for an Employed America Lacks

The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.

January 20, 2017 is the start of a new political era, as the first president without any prior government experience will take seat in one of the most powerful government positions in the world. Donald Trump has rallied supporters under his nostalgic rallying cry, “Make America Great Again” and has made some pretty remarkable promises, including being God’s gift to job seekers. But will Trump usher in the dawn of an employment utopia in the next four years? Probably not. 

Trump’s claim that “92 million Americans are on the sideline outside of the workforce, and they’re not a part of our economy,” is a deceiving one. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate is actually at 4.7%, which translates to approximately 7.5 million Americans without employment. The other 84.5 million Americans that Trump seems hell-bent on employing don’t actually want to be employed. What the new president seems to be forgetting is that individuals calculated in the figures of those ‘not in the labor force’ are full-time parents, students, individuals with disabilities that don’t allow them to work and individuals who have already contributed to the labor force – that is to say, retirees. 

So, what about those 7.5 million people without a job? Contrary to the bleak depression-era picture that Trump paints, many of these individuals are not hopelessly sitting in bread lines or shaking tin cans for dimes; they are actively seeking employment. In my work supporting the economic development of South Central Los Angeles, I often find myself standing in front of a group of people, mostly black and brown youth under 24, asking them to tell me what makes them a good employee. Most of the time their answers reflect some sort of hard-skill they were able to pick up in a part-time job they had as a student: stocking, conducting inventory, being a cashier. I also find myself speaking to a few individuals in their mid-30’s and 40’s who offer more advanced skills: answering phones, managing shift schedules and other administrative tasks. These skills no doubt make them employable, and in fact would make them great candidates for the 10,000 jobs just announced by Walmart. But, as is the hard truth with many Americans, just because you have a job doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. 

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Donald Trump at Trump Tower | Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The economic pressure most Americans feel doesn’t stem from unemployment, it stems from inadequate pay that is disconnected from the larger, pressurized social and economic landscape. Throughout his campaign, Trump touted promises of bringing back manufacturing jobs, evoking a time when the assembly line seemed to form the backbone of the American economy. A time when nuts and bolts were tools of the trade, and a federally-defined “living wage” meant you could, potentially, live on the wage. A time that has long been usurped by technology, inadequate affordable housing and a failing educational system. 

Should any of those 10,000 Walmart jobs come to South Central, I’d have no qualms supporting the people who walk through my door in obtaining one, but the economic sustainability of a community doesn’t stop at job acquisition. On average, a Walmart employee makes $9 - $10 an hour, and while this can put money in a person’s pocket, it won’t put a roof over their heads.  According to a 2016 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, U.S. renters need to earn $20.30 per hour in order to afford a modest two bedroom apartment. In Los Angeles, that number has been estimated as high as $33 an hour. Still, a job is better than no job, right? Depends on how long you can hold the job. 

Another “win” for Trump this year has been the announcement that Amazon will be adding a monumental 100,000 U.S. jobs. However, this probably has less to do with Trump’s incoming presidency and more to do with the shift in the way Americans consume products.  Amazon’s announcement came after the end of a year that saw the closing of hundreds of Sears, Kmart and Macy’s brick and mortar stores combined as well as the slashing of positions in other retail stores. So for the thousands of of new positions created by the online retail giant, you have thousands of Americans who were put out of work by Amazon’s rapidly expanding business model. 

Additionally, while Amazon has promised to deliver many of these 100,000 future jobs to communities across the country through their fulfillment centers, most of their current jobs are high-skilled positions with a heavy focus on technology, that coincides with hiring trends across the job market. These positions may be great news for individuals who have had the opportunity to access job training in tech, engineering and finance, which are among the fastest growing career fields in the country. However, the availability of these jobs will have little impact on communities, especially communities of color like South Central, who continue to lack financial and policy investment in educational resources that adequately prepare them for the rapidly-shifting job market. According to a 2016 report by EdTrust, only 8% of high school graduates complete a full college and career prep curriculum stating, “This pattern is far too common for all groups of students and is particularly problematic among Latino graduates and graduates from disadvantaged families. Compared with 45 percent of white and black graduates, 52 percent of Latino graduates didn’t take a cohesive curriculum. Similarly, 44 percent of students from more advantaged families didn’t take a cohesive curriculum, compared with 53 percent of students from disadvantaged families.”

Trump’s vision of an employed America is missing the need to create and reform jobs with wages that will meet the increased cost of living and direct investment in education for communities that need access to developing transferrable job skills. While Trump may continue to shout that ‘Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!’ are a solution to our community’s economic ails, we must not lose sight of the reality that jobs are just one aspect of economic growth. 

What our communities need are true living-wage jobs that will keep families in affordable homes; local economic policies that will support small businesses and local entrepreneurs; investment in our educational programs that enable the development of evolving transferrable career skills. As we see the emergence of a political platform that is incubating racial and economic divides across the country, we as community developers, organizers and advocates must build local power by pushing for community-centered economic and social reforms that will build capacity within our local communities and lay the groundwork for collective action. 

Banner photo of protest signs rallying support for fast food workers and $15 minimum wage. | Photo: Don Emmert/Getty Images

 

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