Amid all the controversy over the recent push in New York and elsewhere for a $15 minimum wage, it's important to remember the big picture.
In the decades after World War II, the United States had powerful policies and popular movements that lifted up working men and women. A third of employed Americans were members of unions, and a pro-worker lobby pushed Washington to raise the minimum wage to more than $10 in today's dollars.
That culture has changed -- so much so that today we're even debating whether a worker should, at a minimum, earn enough to make ends meet.
In my book, I tell the stories of unemployed autoworkers struggling to stay afloat, cut off from the sorts of good jobs that built a broad middle class in this country. The secure livelihoods they once enjoyed are the opposite of the jobs in today's economy -- jobs manning cash registers and restaurant counters for low wages, or hustling daily to survive as an independent contractor.
Indeed, the Silicon Valley-spawned jobs multiplying nowadays -- the Uber driver, the TaskRabbit gopher -- amount to the "ownership society" on steroids: You, the worker, own all the risk.
No one is immune from the changes affecting the modern economy. American autoworkers, now in negotiations with the car companies, may take heart that their industry has rebounded. But with more factory jobs moving to Mexico, entry-level auto jobs capped at much lower wages, and foreign automakers setting up shop in right-to-work states that make union organizing hard, the future for the auto industry, and the manufacturing sector that paid so well, remains grim.
Meanwhile, the all-for-one, one-for-all attitude that the unionized autoworker voiced proudly has been pushed aside. Today, politicians talk about job-creating "makers" and parasitic "takers." "Loser" and "fail" have become epithets of a society more tolerant of everything but low marks on test scores or performance reviews.
This attitude fed an intense self-blame among some of the unemployed people I met. Many started taking antidepressants. Several became suicidal. They thought they had let their families down. They didn't make the right choices. They didn't get enough education. As their time without work dragged on, they saw themselves as losers in a society that values winning at all costs.
But this way of thinking is shortsighted. It's based on a narrow moral viewpoint. If we only blame other people for failure and do not acknowledge the lack of opportunity, then it makes sense to tell people to just get an education and go it alone. If we care only about the number of jobs we create -- rather than whether they are good jobs that can support families -- then of course it makes sense to do whatever the company wants.
But as the experience of other countries -- many with much higher minimum wages -- reminds us, we don't have to be so passive in our politics. We can do the right thing, regardless of what the doomsayers tell us.
No one should be living in poverty if they work full time, period. This is about more than just economics. It's about our values, which our economy is supposed to serve.
We need to expect more from our corporate citizens, too. Government can't just subsidize them with worker and other tax credits as they go down the road of paying meager wages. It needs to set a higher bar that lets good companies do right by their workers, rather than being unfairly forced to compete with their bottom-feeding rivals.
A higher minimum wage alone won't solve the problem of our declining middle class. But it will be a step toward an economy that actually works for ordinary Americans.
Victor Tan Chen, a former Newsday reporter, is a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of "Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy" and the editor in chief of In The Fray, an online magazine.