Linda Dunn: Pondering the ‘Great Resignation’


As the “Great Resignation” movement continues with millions leaving the workforce and businesses shutting down or reducing hours due to staff shortages, many people of my generation frequently complain that “no one wants to work anymore.”

Cutting off unemployment benefits and shredding the social safety nets are measures that many of us urged our legislators to enact to “encourage people to go back to work.”

And yet those measures have not yielded the results we desired and expected, even in the areas of our country that most vigorously pushed the “stick” over “carrot” approach.

An analysis by The Associated Press found no uptick in job candidates in those states that cut aid and a small uptick in candidates in those states that kept some aid.

Maybe a multi-degreed expert can make sense out of that result, but the rest of us are left scratching our heads because this is not at all what we expected.

Many economists and others with credentials have given a wide range of opinions on what is driving this “Great Resignation” movement. Some of them are even denying it’s a movement at all. They consider it just a short-term adjustment as more job opportunities lead workers to shop around for the best deals.

As for those leaving the job force permanently, there have been two suggestions from economists lately that make my head spin.

First, many of us older folks may have simply decided that we liked staying home and have opted to retire rather than return to the workforce.

Secondly, young families have decided to revert to the traditional family model of one parent working while the other stays home with the children.

I have doubts about both of these expert opinions, but I’m only going to address the latter, because that is the one for which my real-life experience offers a very simple math formula to explain why parents might “choose” to become a traditional one-breadwinner family and why that choice is often forced upon them rather than something they desire.

When X (net earnings from work) is less than or equal to Y (the cost of working outside the home) then there is no economic benefit for working.

At the time I was a divorced mother of two preschool children, my take-home pay after child care was roughly one third of what I earned, and it was impossible to stretch that meager amount to cover even the bare essentials.

If my church hadn’t gifted us groceries, and my sister hadn’t claimed she needed to “clean out her freezer,” and if my parents hadn’t watched the children on Sundays so I could work overtime, and if many other acts of kindness and assistance had not taken place, we would not have made it through that dark time and into the light of a better day.

Our county’s communities have many wonderful organizations that help those struggling, but the reality is that the high cost of safe and reliable child care is often greater than any single item in many household budgets.

Although there are federal programs available to assist low-income families with child care, only about 22% of children in low-income families currently receive this assistance. Only two states, Vermont and Florida, offer universal pre-K.

We can and should do better, not because we want to provide a larger pool of low-wage workers for employers, but because we need to provide a safe environment for the young children of those workers who might otherwise be home alone or put in charge of themselves and their younger siblings when they lack the maturity for that responsibility.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that we’ll see any positive changes soon since Democrats are pushing a universal public pre-K plan with subsidized child care for low-income families. Under our current “rules of engagement,” if the Democrats support it, then the Republicans must oppose it.

It’s times like this when I really miss the good old days of politicians like former Sen. Richard Lugar, who put governance before politics and wasn’t afraid to reach across the aisle to do the right thing.

He was primaried for it.