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May 29, 2015

The Middle Is Disappearing

It’s nearly impossible to climb a ladder if the rungs in the middle are missing. Unfortunately, that’s the story with Virginia’s job market.

The number of jobs paying too little for families to make ends meet has grown since the recession ended. So have the high-paying jobs at the top. But the middle is disappearing – and that’s bad for Virginians and our state’s economy.

In May 2014, the latest year for which data are available, there were 27,400 fewer jobs in mid-wage occupations – those paying on average $15.33 to $23.13 an hour – than there were in May 2013.

That’s on top of the loss of nearly 70,000 jobs in that wage range between 2007 and 2010. There’s been some ups and downs since then. But the plunge in the last year means that today Virginia has even fewer jobs in mid-wage occupations than during the depths of the recession.

Meanwhile, the number of jobs with median wages below $15.33 an hour grew by 26,100 when comparing May 2013 and 2014. This involves work like retail sales, grounds maintenance, and record clerks. On average, such jobs pay just $12.45 an hour. That’s under $25,000 a year for a full-time, year-round worker.

At the top, Virginia is seeing continued growth in occupations that typically pay above $24 an hour: jobs like office supervisors, sales reps for services, nurses and doctors, and lawyers. These are great jobs to have, but it’s really hard get there directly from the bottom. You need those middle rungs to climb all the way up.


Virginia’s job now is to fix the ladder.

That means offering the kind of training that prepares Virginia’s workers for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs, like advanced manufacturing,and doing more for those Virginia workers who are increasingly stuck in low-wage work.

It also means making sure those who have been laid off from our shrinking number of middle-wage jobs don’t end up bankrupt and destitute. Specifically, strengthening Virginia’s shaky unemployment insurance system. Today it’s not on track to weather the next recession, so let’s rebuild the reserves.

We need to reform state and local taxes to make them fairer for low- and middle-income Virginians. Right now, the poorest pay the largest share of their income to taxes, while the richest pay the least. Those who have benefitted most from the opportunities of our state should pay their fair share to make sure others have those same opportunities to succeed.

We also need to take advantage of available federal funds so all Virginians can get the medical care they need to be healthy and productive. When we can’t afford to see a doctor when we need care, our ability to keep climbing the jobs ladder is unrealistic.

We need to make sure everyone who works full-time is paid enough to support a family. No hard-working adult should be locked in a cycle of poverty from which they can’t escape, yet that reality grows as we lose middle-wage jobs.

And we need to invest in the next generation of Virginia workers by improving K-12 schools and higher education. Every young Virginian should have the opportunity to get the education it takes to compete for the high-skill, high-wage occupations of the future.

The disappearance of middle-wage jobs in Virginia isn’t a happy story, but it’s up to us to determine how that story ends. Together, we can rebuild the ladder of opportunity in the commonwealth.

Levi Goren

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