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Secretary Reich and the Disintegrating Middle Class

IF these times are good, why do they seem so bad to me?'' is a question many Americans have been asking lately. We speak of ``the unemployment rate'' as 5.9 percent, for instance, but there are really many unemployment rates: 3 percent for the college-educated, 9 percent for high school graduates, and 12 percent for dropouts.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich has been an eloquent spokesman within the Clinton administration on the ``disintegrating middle class.'' A few years back, he wrote about the ``fortunate fifth'' -

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the top quintile of the population that was making real economic progress as the bottom four-fifths were just holding their own. On a visit to the Monitor's offices the other day, Mr. Reich observed that the fortunate fifth has become the ``extremely fortunate 5 percent'' who get 47 percent of the national income, while the bottom 20 percent receives only 3.6 percent.

Recent years have seen a dramatic shift in favor of skilled workers as a result of new technologies, international trade pressures, and the decline of trade unions. ``All of this has conspired to make life harder for working families.''

Reich sees two silver linings, however: The new jobs being created are generally good high-skilled jobs. And many of these are accessible to those with only a year or two of post-secondary training. The kind of middle-class economic security that could be built in the 1950s on the basis of an unskilled job in a factory now can be built, Reich suggests, on the basis of a skilled technical job.

He describes a world where even coal mines are computerized but expresses concern that the labor force isn't building its skills base ``fast enough to save the middle class.''

Reich was in Boston along with Karen Nussbaum, director of the women's bureau at the Labor Department, to present findings of a study the department did called ``Working Women Count.'' The survey found that the nation's working women want, in a word, more: more pay and fairer pay, more elder care and child care.

Ms. Nussbaum noted that the study identified a streak of ``suppressed panic over just making ends meet.''

By March 15, the Labor Department is to present to President Clinton a program of recommendations for change based on the study. It will not be easy to come up with a program that makes a real difference at a time when America's corporate employers, especially its large ones, already feel they are being asked to serve as extended family, neighborhood support group, and national health service.

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A company being asked to provide child care, for instance, may rightly point out that competitors in Hong Kong are being asked no such thing; how can it compete globally if it must baby-sit too?

But the continuing development of the nation's already diverse, if not fragmented, labor force cannot be allowed to be seen as a zero-sum game. The investment model is the most hopeful one to consider: Invest in the skills of your staff, and give them the benefits they really need, and the money spent will come back in productivity and morale gains.