We are living through the most disruptive era since the Industrial Revolution. From lifesaving discoveries to green technologies to better ways to stay connected, the new economy’s gains have been enormous. But, for too many workers, the shifts have been dramatic and unsettling. Hard-fought worker protections, wages and benefits have faded along with the brick and mortar of the old economy.
Now, long-term jobs are giving way to gig work. Real wages have barely budged for workers. For many Americans, owning a home is out of reach. The transition is threatening the fabric of our country. We need to change course.
Cities like Seattle are at the intersections of these seismic changes. We are America’s fastest-growing city over the past decade, fueled by innovation, technology and jobs. But our story is, in many ways, still a tale of two cities. Exploding housing costs have pushed too many longtime residents out of our city and into the suburbs. Too many of our neighbors are experiencing homelessness. Too few are building any wealth.
Bridging the gap between what we need and what we can afford is the key to America’s future. While a number of outdated laws and regulations need to be changed, four steps will help create the new framework we need throughout the country. And we already know they work.
First, workers must be paid fair wages. Seattle was one of the first cities to raise the minimum wage to $15 and to require paid sick and safe leave. Alarmist predictions that it would kill jobs proved incorrect. More money in workers’ pockets has meant more money in the economy.
Second, we must move quickly to create a workforce ready for jobs that don’t exist today but will be commonplace by 2030. In the state of Washington, we know that a majority of jobs will require a postsecondary credential or degree and will be in top industries such as health care, information technology or e-commerce. We know that automation and robotics are already becoming the norm in places such as grocery stores or factory floors. We know we are unprepared for that workforce of the future.
To get ready, we are making education more affordable. Seattle will pay for two years of community college for any public school student to prepare our kids for the jobs of the future. And to start preparing kids even younger, we offer free preschool and subsidized day care to families that need it most.
Next, we must come together around a national plan to create more affordable housing. While our city has leveraged more than$700 million in public and private resources in affordable housing over the past two years, it is not enough. One of the greatest drivers of inequity in our cities is skyrocketing housing costs. According to a new report, nearly one in three middle-class households spends more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. That is an unsustainable trend.
We need to acknowledge that government policies have helped create and continue racial disparities, including in housing. Lack of access to homeownership is one of the key contributing factors to the racial wealth gap. We need a national housing plan that prioritizes wealth-building and homeownership, especially for communities of color.
Finally, we need to build in financial fairness for gig-economy workers, most of whom are independent contractors. This large (and growing) group of workers, like ride-hailing drivers, often work long hours to enrich companies that currently are not providing minimum wages, sick leave, retirement or health care benefits. Unchecked, these new employment models will destroy what’s left of the covenant between labor and management that built the American middle class. Balance needs to be restored by creating workplace standards for gig workers.
To do that, different industries will require tailored solutions. Seattle was the first city in the country to have a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which guarantees to more than 30,000 nannies, house cleaners and other domestic workers the minimum wage, rest breaks and discrimination protections. And our Domestic Workers Standards Board has been charged with developing strategies on other potential portable benefits such as retirement.
None of this will be easy, of course. Many in Washington, D.C., and state capitals will work hard to protect the status quo; others in business will work to protect their bottom lines.
But America’s workforce, living in cities or not, cannot wait. If our country takes action, we may still have a chance to save our disappearing middle class and, with it, renew the nation’s greatest promise.
Editor’s note: This first appeared in The Washington Post.