JAMES E. PAIGE, JR.
High School Class of 1963
Even people involved in direct services such as bus drivers, waitstaff, teachers, case managers, and cashiers will not escape automation.
In my blog Opportunity, Race & Luck: Grappling With The Enigma Of Perpetual Under-Resourcing Of Americans (October 6, 2020).
My siblings and I didn’t grow up wealthy, and I don’t remember wanting anything. However, in retrospect, I became interested those who are “under-resourced.” These are terms I didn’t use in the 1960s. Then, we talked in terms of “the poor” and “poverty.” Over my “careers,” I began to see the link between race and the lack of opportunity for the under-resourced. For the third phase of my career, I returned to my first one that focused on enhancing educational and economic outcomes for all. Now, just as in the 1960s, there are no simplistic solutions “to overcoming poverty.” It’s more than just getting a job and overcoming racism, and it’s more than just changing the law. It requires a societal commitment that America has yet been unwilling to make.
In subsequent discussions of my blog, I’ve noted two change rates in the 1960s. The pace of change in the second half of the 1960s was faster than at the beginning of the decade. One of my first jobs after graduating in 1963 was with as a clerk where I witness the initial changes in the workplace brought on by computers. Computation of the national sales was done by approximately 50 people using comptometers. The 50 workers were replaced by a computer. I left work on a Friday the comptometer unit was buzzing. I returned to work on Monday and everything was gone. No desks, no chairs, no machines, no people. Today my thoughts turn to the future. The labor market started changing incrementally in the 60s with the introduction of word processors, fax machines and the like. Change accelerated as the business processes and equipment where digitized. With the expansion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) change is now occurring at warp speed.
It has been less than four years since the Covid19 vaccines opened society. Life did return to normal, but it was a “new normal.” Work and school underwent significant changes. The “stay-at-home orders” of the pandemic had provided “proof of concept” for remote work and learning. The stimulus packages that kept millions of Americans from financial ruin had prompted the government to make changes in the safety net, which was woefully deficient.
In response to the social justice protest, business and government reexamined their role in creating and maintaining income and social disparities. Although there was no overnight change in race relations, bad actors (those who made racial and sexual insensitive remarks) no longer operated with impunity. Inappropriate statements and actions ceased being excused as “boys being boys,” and those who stepped outside the line faced censure and job dismissals.
Citizens in the lower economic and social quadrants continued to struggle. Still, there was hope that the progressive agenda started by the former President, Joe Biden, would continue under the new President, Kamala Harris.
John Jacob woke up and began his day as usual. Since April, he had been laid from work but anticipated returning to his old job within the next two weeks. He had managed to keep himself busy, spending more time with his daughter and working odd jobs with the local handyman. He and his daughter’s mother were separated, but he had continued to be engaged in the child-rearing process. Having time off had allowed him to engage more fully with his now teenage offspring.
Not having a regular paycheck had its challenges. However, between unemployment and savings, John was able to make things work. Covid19 had exposed the inadequacy of unemployment payments, and the increases in the weekly allotments had become a national standard. It wasn’t easy, but John managed to remain current with his rent, car payments, and insurances.
Being unemployed was new for John. He had always had a job. He was also one of the fortunate ones when the pandemic spiked unemployment. John had secured a position as an overnight dispatcher for a medical distribution company and was deemed an essential worker. Life was good.
However, following the completion of mass vaccinations, medical supply distribution had returned to the pre-pandemic level, and there was no longer a need for the overnight shift. John anticipated that his lay off would be temporary since they would be consolidating and expanding the first and second shifts, which would require additional dispatchers during those hours.
On July 7, 2025, John Jacob received a letter notifying him of the elimination of his dispatcher position. Acme Medical Suppliers had expanded their first and second-shift operations; however, they had automated the truck dispatching process. What once took four dispatchers now only required a computer terminal operator. Robotics had already become a staple in the warehouse. AI determined what went on each pallet, robots loaded the pallets on trucks, and the delivery routes were computer-generated. Customers received notification of what was shipped and the estimated time of arrival. The offloaded pallet would transmit its arrival back to the warehouse.
John did not panic. He had more than fifteen years of experience, and he believed that securing another job would be relatively easy. However, once he went out into the job market, it was clear that ACME’s approach to dispatching had become the industry standard.
Since he had never been out of work, this was a new experience for him. It was also a little scary that the work skills that he had developed were no longer in demand. The prospects of no income and diminished savings were overwhelming.
John shared his plight with a friend, who suggested that he go to the local social services center to seek assistance. Not knowing what to expect but with nothing to lose, he made his way to the center.
The conversation with one of the service workers went well, and John was pleasantly surprised. The government had put an enhanced safety net in place following the pandemic, but he had paid little attention to the changes since he was employed.
The social justice protest had exposed the safety net’s inadequacies that left millions of Americans economically vulnerable. The shift in political winds had caused the country to acknowledge that the unraveling of public assistance programs (unemployment, food stamps, and rental subsidies, etc.) did not just impact the black and brown – it affected everyone.
As a result, John was able to enroll in healthcare and qualified for universal minimum income coverage. He received a rent subsidy, requiring that he only pay 30% of his income, allowing him to remain in his apartment.
John later discovered that millions of citizens had lost their jobs due to automation.
Understanding the shift in worker requirements, he enrolled in a training program to enhance his computer skills. John studied coding and systems management. With his experience as a dispatcher, he could now manage the dispatch computer terminal and troubleshoot any issues.
The workplace had changed. Both employers and workers had adapted. To perform his job, John no longer had to be at the warehouse. He could work from home.
The training program John attended was part of a national initiative to retrain the workforce.
Covid19 had created a robust remote force, and the use of robots accelerated. Businesses had become more sensitive to making the workplace safe, and having a healthy environment was mandatory.
Engaging in lifelong learning is not just a preferred attribute. It was necessary to achieve and maintain self-sufficiency. Even people involved in direct services such as bus drivers, waitstaff, teachers, case managers, and cashiers had not escaped automation.
The City of Philadelphia has just announced that it was phasing out subway train operators, replacing them with autonomous driven trains. Three major banks also announced that they are eliminating teller services and expanding the banking options at ATMs. The expanded services include wrapped coins and certified checks.
America lacks an adequate safety net for the under-resourced or those experiencing an economic downturn due to unemployment, natural disasters, medical bills, etc. When the country faces a depression or recession, the federal government provides relief. It provides direct assistance to individuals and businesses with stimulus packages to lessen the impact of lost wages and revenue. Society recovers, unemployment decreases, and the economic recovery is hailed to demonstrate the capitalistic system’s viability.
The New Deal followed the stock market crash of 1929, which spawned Social Security and unemployment insurance. Work programs such as Conservation Civilian Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) created jobs and put people back to work. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and reforms to avoid future economic collapses.
The New Deal became the blueprint for lifting the economy when it slumped. The Kennedy administration used economic stimuli to overcome the recession of the 1961. Recently, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 led America out of the 2008 Great Recession, and the CARES Act addressed the financial and economic fallout of COVID 19 in 2020.
Federal economic policies have addressed how to “heat up” a cooling economy or “cool down” an over-heating one. They manage one “tendency” of capitalist development. This tendency is euphemistically called “the business cycle” – the fluctuation between overproduction and under-consumption.
However, there is another tendency of capitalist economic development, and that is the tendency to create poles of wealth on one hand and poverty on the other. As the economy goes through its business cycles, income and wealth gaps widen.
As policymakers’ stabilization took kit has expanded since the 1930s, the gaps between rich and poor have widened.
One reason for the widening gap is that economic recovery for the wealthy and big businesses is usually swift, while individual households face a long road back to financial stability.
Preceding the 2008 Great Recession was an extended period of economic growth marked by low unemployment and homeownership increases. The housing market collapsed, and unemployment spiked. The Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) facilitated recovery for banks and businesses. Consumer and banking reforms were part of the blueprint aimed at helping workers.
Gradually, households recovered, unemployment dipped to its lowest level in decades, and an uptick in homeownership ensued.
Ten years later, the pandemic struck. The population that was starting to recover from 2008 was the most impacted by the job losses resulting from COVID 19 shutdowns. Individuals, that purchased homes following the Great Recession did have sufficient equity to cushion the financial blow. Unemployment payments were not enough to cover ongoing expenses, and the lockdown added additional stress points.
President Biden is trumpeting his $1.9 trillion COVID 19 relief package, proclaiming that it will spur job growth, boost the economy, and provide much-needed aid to states, cities, and schools. Also included in the package are things such as an increased child tax credit to assist the poor. Biden’s recovery plan further helps small businesses and grants Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) grants. He hopes to address what was lacking in previous stimulus packages by assisting the under-resourced and funding initiatives to address past social injustices.
An economic stimulus package is worthwhile and rescues millions of households from financial disaster.
Financial stimulus, however, does not address the systematic and structural flaws that cause so many to suffer. As society opens, people will return to their jobs, schools will reopen, restaurants will operate at total capacity, and sports venues will welcome back spectators.
On the other side of the economic divide, 50-60% of the workforce will return to living check-to-check.
Housing affordability will still be an issue, the rising cost of healthcare will continue to plague the under-resourced, and the school debt crisis remains. The pandemic began March 2020, and by May 202O, those that could work remotely had adjusted and recovered. Many remote workers are eligible for direct stimulus payments and have an opportunity to improve their finances. The reduction in credit card debt and home refinancing at lower interest rates is evidence of improving many workers’ finances.
For the non-remote workers, the story is different.
Stimulus checks pay outstanding debts and meet daily expenses. Eviction moratoriums are due to expire in September 2021, and student loan payment deferrals are due to expire in October 2021. There are permanent job losses, and regular and enhanced unemployment payments will also expire. Financial advisors are recommending the people not spend or invest their stimulus check. Under-resourced individuals do not have the option to save; they need the money to meet basic needs.
On the social justice side, depressed neighborhoods will still have underperforming schools leaving students unprepared for higher education or the ‘new’ economy’s rigors. Food scarcity and inadequate healthcare will remain, and the criminal justice system will lack reform.
For millions of Americans, what is needed is an actual safety net, not an economic stimulus. A basic minimum wage, universal healthcare, childcare subsidy, and employment that pays a living wage will raise the floor of poverty. Recovery from economic downturns is hugely challenging when the starting point is zero or negative. The boom and bust economic cycles provide an opportunity for a few while it perpetuates an underclass.
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