Swarthmore Alum Offers Perspective on Labor Force

Diana Furchtgott-Roth ’79, Chief Economist for the United States Department of Labor, spoke about the successes of and challenges for the labor force in today’s economy. Over 100 students packed SCI 101 and were offered an assortment of statistics to show that the American labor force has seen plenty of success in recent years, then were cautioned that there are still several areas for improvement.

Virtually anybody who spends any significant amount of time at Swarthmore soon notices a certain common trait of most of the student body. They tend to have political views that lie ever so slightly to the left of those of our current president. Mr. Bush appointed Furchtgott-Roth to her post, so there was considerable muttering before the presentation about how she would merely be a mouthpiece of the administration. Indeed, the economic picture she painted was quite rosy; however, the data presented was quite valid and the presentation focused on facts rather than rhetoric. In response to one question about what the 2001 decrease in occupational injuries should be attributed to, Furchtgott-Roth asked whether the asker wanted the official answer or the real answer before offering both.

Furchtgott-Roth began with an explanation of her job, saying that she primarily advises Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao on economic matters. She moved onto a set of graphs showing the recent successes of the U.S. labor market, showing that our country has one of the lowest unemployment rates of any industrialized nation (and that this rate is dropping.) Furthermore, only 11.8% of the unemployed have been so for more than a year, much lower than the rates in Japan, Canada, and industrialized Europe. Nobody in the audience was surprised to hear that the tax burden on labor has dropped sharply in recent years (though they might not agree that this is a good thing), and that improvements in technology have improved both employee productivity and safety.

She then proceeded to address the less attractive facets of the state of American labor, including presenting a chart that was deleted from the official publication of the Department because of its discouraging information. Several graphs showed that America’s spending on unemployment benefits and job training as a percentage of GDP lag far behind other developed nations. Rapidly rising health care costs are also a concern, as are the effects of frequent job changes on traditional employee pension benefits Furchtgott-Roth closed her speech on a positive note, saying that our flexible and dynamic force is a big part of the strength of the American economy, and asserting that “America is still the best place in the world to work.”

A question-and-answer period followed the presentation. Several students (and one professor) asked questions about issues of interest, such as childcare, environmental protection, and employee ownership of businesses. Furchtgott-Roth was usually able to either provide information directly or indicate where the questioner could find the relevant data. Unfortunately for one inquisitive individual, the Department of Labor does not keep statistics on levels of employee happiness. With several hands still in the air and the crowd slowly leaving in twos and threes, Furchtgott-Roth noted that anybody who wanted to leave could pick up an informational book on their way out and that she completely understood if people had lots of work to do. There was a sudden rush for the exits. Diana Furchtgott-Roth may now be on the inside of the (mostly) hated Bush administration, but she hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a Swattie.


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