The problem of low pay has dominated headlines this year thanks to striking
fast food workers, tone
, and a spate of successful
campaigns to raise state and local minimum wages.
Behind the news cycle, however, there’s a deeper issue than what Walmart or McDonald’s pay their workers today. Americans are once again wrestling with what they fundamentally want from the social contract—the basic bargain most of us can expect from the economy throughout our lives.
A generation ago, the country’s social contract was premised on higher wages and reliable benefits, provided chiefly by employers. In recent decades, we’ve moved to a system where low wages are supposed to be made bearable by low consumer prices and a hodgepodge of government assistance programs. But as dissatisfaction with this arrangement has grown, it is time to look back at how we got here and imagine what the next stage of the social contract might be.