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Do Conservatives Like Rubio Know How to Create "Better" Jobs?

David Callahan

In a speech at AEI today, Senator Marco Rubio outlined a broad vision for reducing poverty and increasing opportunity. Here's the most important thing that Rubio said: 

The only solution that will achieve meaningful and lasting results is to provide those who are stuck in low paying jobs the real opportunity to move up to better paying jobs. And to do this we must focus on policies that help our economy create those jobs and that help people overcome the obstacles between them and better paying work. The War on Poverty accomplished neither of these two things.
Rubio is exactly right that good paying jobs are the ultimate solution to poverty. By the same token, the disappearance of such jobs starting in the 1960s thanks to de-industrialization helps account for much of the entrenched poverty that arose in subsequent decades -- a point that conservatives rarely acknowledge in their haste to blame government and the poor themselves for poverty.
Regardless, Rubio is right that, to reduce poverty, we need to figure out how to create better paying jobs and make sure people have the skills to fill them. Rubio is also largely right that leading anti-poverty programs haven't done that, since those programs mainly clean up the mess left by the low-wage economy and unemployment. The main exception here are the education initiatives that stemmed from the Great Society, including Pell Grants.
So, yes, I'm on the same page with Rubio about elements of his analysis. But here's the big question: What is Rubio's plan -- or that of any conservative -- for actually creating better paying jobs? As things stand now, the U.S. economy -- even when it's humming along -- mainly produces lots of poorly paying jobs. According to government data, 46 percent of American workers earn less than $25,000 a year. Nearly a third of jobs pay under $15,000. This is the problem, in a nutshell. 
Conservatives can claim to have ideas for creating more jobs -- if you believe that steps like cutting taxes and red tape will spur economic growth. Conservatives can also claim to have ideas for creating a more skilled workforce -- if you believe that charter schools and vouchers will improve our education system. 
But creating more jobs and more skilled workers is not the same as creating better paying jobs. As things now stand, BLS data shows that many of the fastest growing occupations over the next decade employing the most workers will pay poorly and not require many skills -- e.g., home health aides. Faster growth of the present American economy will mainly result in more lousy jobs. And while growth may tighten labor markets and raise wages somewhat, it doesn't solve the fundamental problem of how to create an economy with many, many more skilled jobs that pay well, include benefits, and can sustain a middle class life. 
What's more, the future jobs data shows that the fastest growing jobs that do pay well are nearly all in the healthcare sector. But the money being paid to these people is coming out of everyone else's pocket through higher insurance premiums and healthcare costs. Ideally, we're able to reduce this kind of job growth in coming years, not expand it. What we really need are more skilled Americans producing high-value goods and services that are sold to other countries as opposed to just moving around wealth here. 
To be sure, conservatives do have an agenda for increasing exports through more free trade and by more drilling to export natural gas. But free trade is a mixed bag: higher exports help some workers, but more imports have famously undermined American wages in recent decades. As for the energy sector, it isn't big enough to really make much of a dent in the jobs challenge. 
So Senator Rubio: What's the plan for those "better paying" jobs? Because without that plan, you don't have an anti-poverty agenda. You have an agenda for a bigger low-wage economy.