Rockefeller Foundation President Reflects On America's Most Pressing Challenge Jobs And Economic Opportunity

Monday, October 16, 2017

Rockefeller Foundation President Reflects On America's Most Pressing Challenge Jobs And Economic Opportunity

Last month I was in Michigan for the fourth annual Detroit Homecoming, an event that brings together people who grew up in the Detroit area, as I did, to re-engage with the city and learn how they can help it continue to bounce back from its 2013 bankruptcy. It was great to be home, and to share some of my perspective on what the Rockefeller Foundation sees, here in America, as the defining issue of our time: jobs and economic opportunity.

I was fortunate to grow up outside the city that gave America the notion of what makes a good job – one where if you work hard and play by the rules, you could have not only economic stability, but also opportunity: more than just get by, you’d be able to get ahead. Back when the Big Three sold 9-out-of-10 cars nationwide, that promise of the American Dream drew people to southeast Michigan from all over – including immigrant families like my own. I was born and raised around Detroit because of the promise of a good job for my father, first at Bendix Aerospace in Ann Arbor, and then at Ford Motor Company, where he worked for over three decades. Hardworking families, including immigrant families like my own, could expect a multigenerational career with one employer, and good public schools for their kids. It wasn’t perfect – we saw proof of that in the 1967 uprising, and the deep-seeded structural racism that still exists today – but it did afford one the chance at upward mobility and opportunity.

I’ve thought about this a lot since I joined the Rockefeller Foundation and we’ve begun to focus more intensely on jobs and opportunity. We’re living at a time of great economic insecurity and inequality. Some call it America’s second Gilded Age, as we’ve seen since the 2008 recession, the great majority of income gains just go to the top 1 percent. For many, work is in fact losing its value as a source of pride, identity, and basic human dignity – the absence of work now proven to be closely correlated with increase in challenges around mental health, anxiety and despair. As I look at our legacy and learn about our prior work on economic fairness, I’ve been asking, how can we help renew confidence in the American Dream and bring hope back to communities that have seen it fade?

There’s a lot we’re still learning, but we do believe the answers can be found in three pillars of opportunity that lie at the heart of the American Dream.

The first pillar is a job that affords people a real middle-class wage – more than a minimum wage or a living wage, a wage that enables workers to share in the profits they create; that allows them to be active consumers; that lets them save for a comfortable, secure retirement; and provides greater upward socioeconomic mobility to more people. That’s what Henry Ford paid his workers a century ago when he doubled their wages to $5 dollars a day. Ford’s motivation was hardly pure: he wanted to reduce turnover. But it also meant workers could suddenly afford the same Model T’s they were building. And company and workers both prospered...

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