How not to report on economics

I have landed on the mailing list for “Remapping Debate” — a site launched to do original reporting on policy issues. The idea is to go beyond the usual starkly presented policy choices and show the full range of possibilities. There is an ample amount of press criticism involved; often pieces stem from articles in major news outlets that the team at Remapping Debate felt left something to be desired.

Anyway, this week’s edition featured a piece by Eric Kroh called “A darker future for ‘Tier 2’ workers.” A note from the editor said:

Two weeks ago, The New York Times ran an enthusiastic story on how GM was standing automaking “on its head”  with a “radically revamped factory” for building a sub-compact car.  … The secret? Paying many union workers about half the usual wage. … Entirely absent from the story was any examination of what it would mean for those auto workers who would be paid so much less than their counterparts. How much and how good of a middle-class life could they expect to enjoy? We decided to try to find out.

Tier 1 workers at GM, according to Remapping Debate, make $28/hour. Tier 2 workers make $14-16. The entire article deals with the question of what kind of life one can lead making $14-16/hour in the midwest.

To me, this is not an abstract question. There are actual people making $14-16/hour in Ohio and Michigan, the two states Kroh talks about in the piece. So one obvious approach to figuring out how people live on $14-16/hour is to go interview such folks, visit their homes, look at their budgets, etc. and then quote them about these matters.

Kroh does not do this. The closest we get is interviews with $28/hour workers sharing second hand accounts about how some of their colleagues have trouble paying for eyeglasses. We do not get a first hand story with attributed quotes of how anyone lives and budgets on the lower wage. We also get lots of expert quotes from economists, realtors, debt counselors and others about how people would live on these wages (one example: “Dorothy Barrick, group manager and financial counselor at GreenPath Debt Solutions in Farmington Hills, Michigan, agreed that a worker in the area with an annual income of $30,000 would have to cut back on non-essential expenses. She said it would mean doing away with cable television and using an antenna instead; going to the library to use the Internet; shopping at Salvation Army and Goodwill for second-hand clothes…”) We learn that experts believe it would be harder for people earning lower wages to afford nice homes and to save if they were also supporting children.

All true, and all obvious if you live in the real world and know people making $30-35k a year or earn or have earned such wages yourself (indeed, the story made me curious what Remapping Debate is paying its writers — starting reporter salaries tend not to be much higher than that). But the whole long story gives the impression of an anthropological account of factory wages — how people in think tanks envision life on $14-16/hour — as opposed to actual reporting on such things.

As it is, real journalism would reveal that people earning $14-16/hour live a variety of different ways. For starters, if you’re not the only person in your family earning an income, then you have a very different life than if you are. If you have kids in the house, your life is different than if you don’t. A single person earning $33,000 a year in the midwest could certainly be putting money in the bank; I earned about $25,000 as a single person in 2002, living in Washington DC and New York City, and managed to save a decent amount of money, in part by doing such things as having a roommate, shopping at Salvation Army and Goodwill for second-hand clothes and not having cable (I didn’t even have to go to the library for internet access — dial-up was like $10-20/month — but there are plenty of other reasons to go to the library, as we saw in yesterday’s post).

I do appreciate Kroh’s attempts to get the UAW leadership to answer for why they agreed to $14-16/hour wages in unionized plants in the midwest. The obvious answer is that this is what the market will take. It’s closer to starting wages in non-unionized plants in the south, and of course most auto makers have the option of shifting production to other countries if they want. The UAW leadership may have decided to do anything possible to stem the decline in private sector union membership. They may think it is better to have more members earning less than fewer members — many on furlough — earning more, even if they would not actually answer the question. It is hopefully becoming obvious to young people that if you want to earn high wages, then auto factory line work is not the business to go in to. But broadly, if one wants to report on how people live on certain wages, it helps to talk to people living on those wages, to describe the world as it is. That should be the goal of original reporting.

One thought on “How not to report on economics

  1. De-lurking.

    Ugh. I clicked through to read the article, and it’s pretty much what you said — a lot of people talking about how difficult it will be for others who have to live on that much money. There’s no info from others who actually do make that much money. And, as you noted, the ability to live on that salary depends on many other factors, such as the presence of other income, whether the kids are in daycare or are school-aged, what kind of health coverage they have with the job, etc. Disappointing article.

    As somebody who did not grow up in a factory town in a rust-belt state, it has been interesting to see the stories that focus on these people. At 34, I’m only two years older than Nick Waun, the Tier 1 wage earner they talk about so much in the article. He is genuinely worried about his future, and I do feel sorry for him, because it’s mind-boggling that people in my age group actually grew up hearing that you can stop your education at high school and still expect a middle class life. At least he is continuing his education now (also mentioned in the article).

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