On March 6, 2019, Professor Betsey Stevenson testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, addressing critical issues facing the modern American worker.
After initial remarks by Chairman Marco Rubio and Ranking Member Ben Cardin, as well as from each of the other panelists, Stevenson used her opening statement to confront the facts and fallacies surrounding the effect technology will have on the labor industry, as well as other barriers such as inadequate family support policies that hinder the competitive advantage the U.S. previously had. Saying that the media has put forth a narrative that technology eliminates jobs, Stevenson clarified that it more likely changes tasks. “The future holds a world in which jobs, almost all of them, need to be redesigned,” Stevenson said, continuing “they need to be redesigned in a way to take advantage of the comparative advantage of human workers.” For this, she calls on greater investment in education and training that will highlight skills that will complement the fast-advancing technological boom.
On a related point, Stevenson emphasized that while total work hours may decline with technology removing time devoted to less desirable tasks, there must be an effort to ensure that it declines in a desired way that doesn’t further hinder the economy of marginalized communities. To this end, she calls for a stronger infrastructure to support working families. “Too often people are completely pushed out of the labor force when they’re forced to choose between family obligations and work,” she noted. Later in the hearing a senator picked up on this point, asking what policies could alleviate some of the stress families have when weighing the high cost of childcare. Stevenson answered by pointing to the already declining U.S. birth rate, which signals the distrust young people have in the security of their financial situation should they choose to have a child. Stevenson notes that providing access to paid leave will keep workers, especially women, in the workforce, as well as strengthen the childcare industry, and this, she said, will result in the U.S. investing “more in children” leading to “better outcomes,” compounded by potentially having a two-income household which will mean them growing up with a higher income.
Stevenson ended her testimony with two points: that the committee needs to set preventative policies now while unemployment is relatively low, and that there needs to be a more thoughtful embrace of technology in the workforce. Reiterating her earlier point that technology doesn’t eliminate jobs but tasks, she did admit to worrying that in the current “race between technology and education, technology seems to be racing ahead.” The impact this will have on marginalized communities is particularly concerning, with Stevenson concluding by saying that the “real question about this technology is not going to be that it replaces workers, it’s going to be about who owns it.”
Watch the full hearing here.
Betsey Stevenson is an associate professor of public policy at the Ford School, with a courtesy appointment in the Department of Economics. She is also a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research, a fellow of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, and serves on the board of directors of the American Law and Economics Association. Betsey recently completed a two-year term as an appointed member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. She served as the chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor from 2010 to 2011