Two improvements for American workers

The Covid-19 pandemic was terrible. But it did contribute to two improvements in the lives of working Americans on both sides of the wage spectrum.

First, low earners. “After a brutal few decades in which low-wage jobs proliferated and the American middle class hollowed out, the working poor have started earning more—a lot more,” writes Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic. “Many low-wage jobs have become middle-wage jobs. And incomes are increasing faster for poorer workers than for wealthier ones, a dynamic known as wage compression.”

Why now? The pandemic was just one part of the two-part equation to more money. The first part happened fast: pandemic-era stimulus checks gave workers the financial cushion to quit poorly paying jobs, assess their options, and go somewhere else that pays better. The second happened more gradually: the unemployment rate, after a decade-plus of downward movement, is finally low enough that employers are being forced to raise wages and offer other benefits to attract workers. Together, these parts add up to companies like Target, for instance, which in 2022 raised its starting hourly wage to $15–$24 and announced that workers clocking at least 25 hours per week would be eligible for health coverage.

Second, high earners. Wages for them are static. But the flexibility of remote work, finds a new survey from the bipartisan public policy organization Economic Innovation Group, has led to a positive impact on marriage rates and family planning. The survey is based on answers from 3,000 US women ages 18–44.

Some questions the survey posed showed statistically insignificant links between remote work and intentions to start a family or have a second child. But others showed a clear, positive relationship. Remote workers were significantly more likely to plan on getting married in the next year than their in-office counterparts, potentially because remote work allows a much easier relocation to the same place as a partner. And for women over 35—especially for women over 35 with two or more children already—remote workers had much higher intentions to have more children, suggesting, the survey analysis says, that remote work “may help older women balance the competing demands of work and family.”

The research is still early, so we’ll have to wait and see if the higher remote-work marriage rates, for one, lead to other fertility trends. And while we know that remote work isn’t an unqualified good, it’s important to gather a body of evidence, especially in a world of falling birth rates, of what government policies would best support families. As Derek Thompson points out in The Atlanticreturn-to-office rates are lower in major US cities than they are in international ones. So it does seem that in the US at least, the effects of remote work will continue to accrue.

By Emma Varvaloucas for What Could Go Right