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Beth Shulman

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Not Just Any Job is Good Enough

Posted: 03/10/09 03:41 PM ET

As President Obama pursues caps on excessive wages for banking executives, I suggest that he insist upon even more important limits at the other end of the wage spectrum. He should use the power of the presidency to ensure living wages in the jobs resulting from his federal initiatives. At the very least, jobs produced by his initiatives should provide a living wage, basic benefits, and work-family flexibility. Anything less than this will keep American workers and their families scrambling to make ends meet, which, in turn, weakens the likelihood of a robust economic recovery.

To ensure that the jobs created as a result of federal stimulus initiatives are jobs that actually sustain and nurture American families, we need to be proactive and write specific accountability measures into legislation.

With the billions of dollars being invested in "green energy" we are creating new "jobs of the future" and also to laying the foundation for a more energy-efficient nation. With our infrastructure investments, we should also be thinking broadly and maximizing our return on investment. In gearing up to repair our nation's crumbling infrastructure, we need to create living-wage jobs to build a real recovery for working Americans and our economy as a whole. Even if legislation moves swiftly and does not include language that ensures quality jobs, Congress should phase in these standards in the second year. We should, at the very least, require that our government evaluate the quality of the jobs that are being created through our infrastructure investments.

Working Americans are in deep trouble, and that was true even before the economic downturn. Before the recession, 1 in 4 jobs in the U.S. paid less than poverty wages. Median wages continued to stagnate or drop. Well over 40 million Americans lacked health insurance. Three out of four low-wage workers had no paid sick days to take care of themselves or their families. Traditional pension plans had been replaced by 401(k)s that failed to provide real retirement security. Seniors who worked their entire lives have been left in poverty.

How can we ensure that these new 21st century infrastructure jobs incorporate basic job quality standards that provide a living wage, basic benefits and work-family flexibility? We can follow the lead of cities and states, many of which have had success in combining job quality standards with economic development. There are clear models proving that what is good for working families is good for the economy as a whole.

Increasingly, states and cities are rejecting the idea that any job creation is good job creation. Instead, they are using their clout to make different choices. No longer content to give something for nothing, they are developing family sustaining jobs for local residents by attaching job quality requirements to tax payer subsidies, contracts or procurements. At least 43 states have done this in at least one subsidy program. At least 116 state subsidy programs now use job quality standards. At the local level, many standards enacted in living wage laws apply to government contracts above a certain dollar amount. At the federal level, the Service Contract Act and the Davis Beacon Act set job requirements for government contracting.

Jobs that pay a living wage and provide basic benefits and time off clearly benefit workers and their families, but they also improve our communities and our economy. With good jobs, workers can spend more in their communities, which in turn generates more American jobs. And good jobs are also good for taxpayers. If we allow our infrastructure investment dollars to go to companies that create substandard jobs, tax payers end up subsidizing these companies twice - first when we hand over the tax dollars for the contracted work and second when our taxes pay for the social programs needed by these workers and their families (that these employers fail to provide).

The new Administration and new Congress have pledged to take a long-term approach to building a strong economy. Being strategic about the quality of jobs should be an essential part of that planning. Our new leaders say they recognize that a strong economy is dependent upon a healthy working and middle class. Building living-wage requirements into the legislation designating funds for infrastructure investments will go a long way toward moving from rhetoric to reality.