Drive along the commercial strips of Broad Street or Midlothian Turnpike. Keep a tally of the stores that sell stuff you need, as opposed to luxuries or things you buy on impulse. Now picture many of those retailers of nonessentials out of business, and the people who staff and supply them put out of work.
This is not a pointless thought experiment. It's becoming a reality, day by day, one liquidation sale after another, as credit tightens and the economy slides into a deep recession.
What comes next for the people who've worked in these stores and delivered the products they sell? Some are part-timers — teenagers and twentysomethings working for spending or tuition money, moms or retirees supplementing household income. But for others, whose education ended with a high-school diploma or G.E.D. and who lack the skill to work in a trade or a skilled service occupation, retail and distribution jobs have been the best they could find.
The American economy once accommodated plenty of low-skilled workers. They manned assembly lines in factories, processed paperwork in clerical pools. They worked switchboards and call centers, collected tolls, worked as security guards, janitors and laborers. Many still do. But more and more of those jobs have been automated, outsourced to foreign countries or taken by immigrants willing to toil for the lowest wage.
Displaced low-skill workers found refuge in retail and distribution industries. The pay is low, and that means working two or three jobs instead of one, both spouses working day and night while the kids take care of themselves (or not). Families go without health insurance, retirement plans and other once-common employee benefits. It's paycheck-to-paycheck, and who knows if we'll ever pay off the credit cards, and God help us if somebody gets really sick or the car dies.
Consumerism has accounted for more than 70 percent of U.S. economic activity in recent years. It has hung on the thread of easy credit. Now that thread is snapping. Home values are falling, slamming the door on home-equity loans that have paid off credit balances and financed the next round of plastic spending. The costs of essentials — food and household staples, utilities, health care — are rising. As job security diminishes, people are paying down their debts and trying to save. Discretionary spending is plummeting.
The least educated, lowest-skilled workers are always the first to fall in economic downturns. This time, with so much of that low-end work force concentrated in expendable retail-sector jobs, it's going to be a fast, hard fall.
Unemployment compensation and welfare have time limits. (Congress just authorized 13 additional weeks of unemployment checks, and may do so again, but that string eventually will run out.) Bankruptcy law is tighter; people can no longer easily escape their debts. Parents, watching their 401(k)s shrink, and grandparents, watching the cost of living outpace their pensions, are less able to bail out younger relatives.
So, government will have to step up. Or to put it less abstractly: People sufficiently educated and skilled to hold jobs and pay taxes will have to save the poorly educated and low-skilled from destitution. This is not an entirely one-sided bargain — widespread deprivation makes a society unhealthy and dangerous, and there will never be enough police and prisons, or leafy exurbs far enough from poverty zones, to shield the affluent from unchecked social pathologies.
This time, though, the public-assistance bargain needs to include some non-negotiable demands, such as education. The economy that rises from this crash will carry a heavy, probably long-lasting burden of debt. And the good jobs it creates will require more sophisticated skill sets. The 21st-century U.S. economy will not be able to sustain a large, unskilled, barely literate, minimally numerate work force — the Delta-minuses of Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World” — and its productive workers will not be willing to subsidize a massive, chronically jobless underclass.
Job creation is already the mantra of the incoming Obama administration. We're seeing proposals for massive public investments for infrastructure, such as repairing roads and bridges and upgrading the power grid, and development of alternative energy and other new technologies.
By all means, shore up the bridges and reduce our dependence on petro-tyrants. But for every dollar we spend on creating jobs, we should spend another dollar — or two, or three — creating a work force that is productively employable in the long run. Human brains are this country's real infrastructure, and too many of them are in dire need of upgrading.
Public assistance for unemployed people lacking marketable skills must be conditioned on their commitment to smartening up. College if they're up to it, or technical and vocational education, or apprenticeships in building and mechanical trades. Literacy, basic math and computer skills must be as universal as society can make them. It wouldn't hurt if one of the requirements of a high-school diploma were the demonstrated ability to make or repair something that people use every day.
Education has been presented to students, welfare recipients and laid-off workers as an opportunity. Some have grasped that opportunity; all too many haven't. The time has come to rephrase the presentation: Education is not just an opportunity, it's a requirement. If you're not working, you're learning. A lot of Americans need to be sentenced to schooling.
That verdict applies not just to recipients of public aid, but to taxpayers as well. The era of hopeful but hollow gestures toward education will have to give way to significant investments in educational infrastructure and teaching. Much of the teaching will be remedial and behavioral, which is labor-intensive, time-consuming and costly. We're talking real money here, and we should expect real results in real time from teachers and students.
The new New Deal, or maybe we should call it the Real Deal: An undereducated work force is a luxury we can no longer afford. S
Clark Bustard, a freelance writer living in Richmond, is Style Weekly's music critic.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.