By Michael Selmi, GW Law School. As I write, only the abstract seems to be available on line.
Low-wage workers have never had privileged access to desirable labor market opportunities but their position has significantly deteriorated over the last two decades, as union representation has decreased and the demand for higher skilled labor increased. This essay explores the future for low-wage workers and begins by defining what we mean by low-wage work, and also who low-wage workers are. I next explore the two most common advocated paths for improving the lives of low-wage workers: reviving unions and a human capital focus. I suggest that reviving unions, even in the context of the Employee Free Choice Act, offers at best a limited hope for improving the labor market opportunities for most low-wage workers. For a variety of complicated reasons, there is no basis for expecting a substantial resurgence of union representation, even if the law is changed to make union organizing more effective. Instead, I emphasize a human capital path, noting in particular, that far too many young individuals attend college without attaining any degree, and I discuss the important role community colleges can play in enhancing the human capital of low-wage workers. In the final part of the paper, I discuss educational reforms at the high school level that target at-risk populations, including a return to vocational education and the rise in charter schools, both of which might offer important opportunities for students to excel in school.
This is consistent with my conviction: education, particularly education and a good environment before age 5, as James Heckman has emphasized, should be our focus.