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Jeb Bush says Americans need to work longer hours. He’s (mostly) right. (+video)

Jeb Bush drew fire for his comments about American workers, but he's right that millions of part-time employees need to work more hours. What's less clear is how he would make it happen. 

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    Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush answers a question from the audience during a town hall campaign stop at the VFW Post in Hudson, New Hampshire, July 8, 2015.
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For salaried assistant managers pulling 55 hour workweeks at big-box retail chains for no additional pay (for now), Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s comments Wednesday evening that “people need to work longer hours” probably stung. But when it comes to part-time workers, he’s right: A quick look at any monthly jobs report shows there are millions of hourly employees who want and need a longer workweek.

Mr. Bush’s comments came during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, where he outlined his goals to grow the economy. “My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see,” he told the newspaper “The Union Leader,” in an interview streamed over the Web. “Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That's the only way we're going to get out of this rut that we're in.”

Opponents quickly seized upon the comments, framing them as an indictment of the American work ethic. Hillary Clinton tweeted that “Anyone who believes Americans aren’t working hard enough hasn’t met enough American workers,” and attached a graph showing how worker productivity has risen far faster than hourly wages over the past few decades.

The Democratic National Committee called Bush’s remarks “easily one of the most out-of-touch comments we’ve heard so far this cycle.” 

Bush’s camp was quick to clarify that he was referring to part-time hourly workers, but shot back by blaming the Obama administration for reduced worker hours.

“Under President Obama, we have the lowest workforce participation rate since 1977, and too many Americans are falling behind,” a Bush aide said in a statement. “Only Washington Democrats could be out-of-touch enough to criticize giving more Americans the ability to work, earn a paycheck, and make ends meet.”

“You can take it out of context all you want, but high sustained growth means people work 40 hours rather than 30 hours and that by our success they have disposable income for their families to decide how they want to spend it rather than standing in line and being dependent upon government,” Bush added in a statement Thursday.

Interestingly, the widely derided “longer hours” snippet of Bush’s Wednesday comments is probably the most agreeable. Despite major gains for the labor market over the past year and a half, the average US workweek for all employees was 34.5 hours in June, according to the Labor Department. Additionally, 6.5 million workers are what the Labor Department calls “part time for economic reasons,” meaning they are working part-time because they either had their hours cut or can’t find a full-time job.

The Bush campaign is also accurate in saying that Obamacare has played some role in limiting worker hours, though the effect on a nationwide scale hasn’t borne out. The healthcare law requires employers to provide health benefits to full-time workers, which it defines as those who work 30 hours a week or more, and several public and private employers, from Burger King to the Iowa School Board, have cut worker hours in response, according to the Wall Street Journal. But as of November, 12.6 percent of workers logged between 15 and 29 hours per week – little changed from the 12.9 percent when Obamacare became law in 2010.

Beyond that, however, his comments start to get a little murky. First off, US “worker productivity,” used in the traditional economic sense doesn’t necessarily correspond to more income for workers, as Clinton pointed out.

“Bush is blaming the wrong people for a significant national problem, which means he’ll find a solution hard to achieve,” Erik Sherman wrote in Forbes Thursday. “The move to a greater part-time workforce was not the intent of any administration. It was the calculated push of more employees into difficult economic straits by employers to avoid healthcare responsibility…Maybe Bush should try wagging his finger at employers.”

What’s more, critics say, Bush has yet to outline a plan for his economic goals. “He wants higher productivity and he wants the underemployed to work more hours," Kevin Drum wrote for Mother Jones. “It's like saying his goal is to lose weight, and then ‘explaining’ that this means more exercise and fewer calories. No kidding. But what's the plan for making it happen? That's what we're interested in.”

 
 
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