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American Workers Deserve to Live With Dignity


Companies across the United States are scrambling to address chronic diversity shortcomings in response to the peaceful protesters marching for racial justice in America.

But there’s a related injustice that few business leaders have acknowledged. It’s the increasingly poor treatment of lower-income workers in the United States over the past half century, a trend that has disproportionately hurt people of color as well.

The bottom line is that today too many Americans don’t possess the basic freedom to earn a living that allows them to feed and house their families with dignity and security.

As our lead editorial explains, over the past four decades, wages for most workers are flat when adjusted for inflation, and there’s less opportunity for career advancement amid contract-work and outsourcing arrangements. During that same period, executive salaries have soared, and the fruits of economic growth have increasingly gone to investors and owners rather than employees.

Over 40 percent of the Americans who use government food stamps have a member of their household who is employed, but whose compensation isn’t enough to otherwise get by. Outside groups have estimated that low-wage workers at Walmart and Amazon, two of the country’s largest employers, rely heavily on public assistance, such as food stamps and Medicaid. For some, even working a full-time job is not enough to support a family without public assistance.

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The past 50 years have been a period of great prosperity for some, and disillusionment and suffering for many more. “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much,” President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1937. “It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

With this third “chapter” of the Times Opinion series “The America We Need,” we’re focusing on the economy necessary for us to be a fairer, more resilient nation. We’re suggesting alternative ways to think about the future of work and compensation. We’re presenting approaches for dismantling the systemic injustices around race and labor that are the legacy of an economy built on slavery. And we’re highlighting how political power — a key ingredient for the change we need — has been captured by the wealthy in America. Taken together, the articles we’re publishing look at how we might save democracy from capitalism and save capitalism from itself.

Over the course of this series, we have been guided by a belief that there’s an opportunity for America to emerge from our current crises as a better place for all of its people. Change feels possible in a way that it didn’t last year, as our habits and assumptions have been overturned by the pandemic and the recent mobilization against racial injustice. As part of this chapter, we’ll call out some of the solutions that have the potential to extend basic freedoms to more Americans.

Opinion polls have shown for years that very few people are content with the America we have. Taking to the streets in protest is one way to try to change that. Voting is another. Demanding more of the nation’s corporations and their leaders is important as well. Ultimately it’s in the hands of all of us to build the America we need.

Kevin J. Delaney (@delaney) is the series editor of “The America We Need.”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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