The other day the missus and I were browsing through our wage history on the Social Security Website, ssa.gov, because we are nerds. Or, at least I am, and my wife loves me enough to humor my personal finance oddities.
My first wages? All the way back in 1994, when I was earning $4.25 an hour busing tables on the weekends at King’s: Pittsburgh’s crummy version of a Denny’s. (Our good version? Eat’n Park. If you have the opportunity, by all means try the salad bar, a coffee, and a smiley cookie.) Since then, it’s been a fairly steady march towards higher and higher wages, with some big jumps coinciding with big life choices (leaving the public sector, turning my back on teaching, and selling out to become a corporate shill).
But then I heard Friday’s episode of Marketplace Weekend, titled “Hours are Long and Wages Are Low” and it just didn’t jive with my own wage history. Lizzie O’Leary documented the stories home health workers, those nurses who take care of our parents and grandparents now that we no longer care for them in our own homes. Despite the work being unthinkably difficult, both found solace in the fact that they do important work: work that is challenging and fulfilling. The big problem? The wages are not enough to really live on. $10.50 an hour was the figure O’Leary cited.
“I would think somebody’s care and life would be worth more than that….what we earn does not really compensate for what we do. But I’ve accepted that because it allows me to care for my father, as well.”
Ten bucks an hour? To care for our sick, elderly family members? I was earning 50% more than that as an office assistant, answering phones and filing invoices, with no college degree.
Still, having taught for a while, too, I have a little experience with the peculiar situation of society claiming both that “your job is truly critical to our future” and “we have no way to address the low compensation”. Because wages aren’t a real reflection of how society values a position (lest we think we really value the contributions of CEOs, who average a paltry $13.8 million a year). Organizations can only pay what their budgets allow, regardless of an employee’s impact, regardless of how society benefits.
But back to those health workers. $10.50 an hour works out to $21,840 a year, if you work forty hours a week for all fifty two weeks of the year. This is the kind of wage that gets you just above the federal poverty level, even if you have two kids. So you better hope for a raise or for a second earner in your household. At at that kind of hourly wage we can assume there is hardly any wage growth in that sector: the figure would simply have to be higher if there were. In fact, the rate of year-over-year wage growth has been declining for decades.
|Image from tradingeconomics.com/united-states/wage-growth|
The Pew Center has an even more stark view of historical wage growth, as they’ve disaggregated the data into different segments of workers.
I feel fairly ashamed looking at my own wage growth over the past twenty years, especially when comparing the relative merits of my corporate work to those of someone literally keeping sick, old people alive and happy. Since diving into the deep end with Fortune 500 companies in 2010, my current salary is now about four times what it was when I was teaching. And I’m still the same dude, presumably with only moderately better skills. I just chose a career path that pays better.
I don’t say that just to be an asshole, bragging about his salary. But we always seem to hear about wealth inequality. Maybe we should be talking about wage inequality. If we are to believe the chart from the Pew Research Center, roughly half of our workers have not seen any real wage growth in the past fifteen years, with all of the gains going to those who already earn more in the first place. This just means more inequality, for both wages and wealth, over time.
If you’re like me, and are fortunate enough to be working towards a crazy financial goal like retiring at forty, remember to feel gratitude along the way, while supporting some policy changes that will allow more of our neighbors the opportunity to pursue the same sort of things, too.
*Photo is from xersti at Flickr Creative Commons.