Work Isn’t Really Valued in the U.S.

Laura Clawson

A journalism professor’s recent tweet highlighted the shockingly low salaries in the local television news industry — by issuing a challenge to local TV stations to pay better than a local fast food restaurant.

The tweet from Elliott Lewis, a professor in the journalism school at Syracuse University, showed a Help Wanted sign at a nearby Five Guys touting an average hourly wage of $17.85. In the responses to the tweet, dozens of people cited the low pay they’ve gotten in television and radio news.

But it’s not just the media doing badly. It’s a chance to consider just how many jobs require expensive college degrees or directly affect vulnerable people’s health or education.

As the replies to this make clear, it is not an idle challenge to offer up. In addition to low pay, people who’ve worked in local news cited long hours and being told not to get second jobs to make ends meet.

To be clear, fast food workers should also be paid $17.85 per hour or above. It’s hard work, and people are too often stuck on part-time hours, and people whose job includes preventing foodborne illnesses should get the respect that role deserves.

That said, it’s also the case that fast food is often in this country seen as a rock-bottom kind of job, so when other jobs can’t match it, it’s a broader commentary on how work is valued in this country.

Not far away, in Oneida County, 911 dispatchers were being offered a starting salary of $36,524. Granted, those jobs are promising benefits that Five Guys probably doesn’t offer. Nonetheless, they’re 911 dispatchers. They’re dealing with your health emergencies, your fires, your home break-ins. 

In 2020-2021, there were 23 states where the average starting salary for a teacher was below $40,000. In one Massachusetts city and town after another, teachers unions are fighting for their paraprofessionals — dedicated classroom workers who support teachers and help students — to be paid an hourly wage just a hair higher than that Five Guys ad.

In one city, an expired contract still in effect put paraprofessionals below the state minimum wage (though the district did say it would honor the minimum wage, yay). The median hourly pay for child care workers is $13.22.

Medical assistants in hospitals and doctors offices, helping your care run smoothly, make just about $37,000 a year on average. Nationally, home health aides are lucky if they make $30,000 a year helping their patients live comfortable lives by bathing and toileting and dressing them, taking care of household tasks, and more.

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and the fight for a $15 minimum wage have shaped our thinking on what low pay looks like.

In addition, just as older people often downplay the seriousness of the student loan crisis by talking about how they worked their way through college without realizing how much higher tuitions are now than 30 or 40 or 50 years ago, older people may judge pay scales by what they made early in their careers.

But inflation isn’t just a phenomenon of the past year — $10 in 1985 is more than $27 now. 

Wage inequality keeps rising, the Economic Policy Institute reports: “In 2021, annual wages rose fastest for the top 1% of earners (up 9.4%) and top 0.1% (up 18.5%), while those in the bottom 90% saw their real earnings fall 0.2% between 2020 and 2021. Workers in the 90th–99th percentile of the earnings distribution also experienced real losses in 2021.” From 1979 to 2021, wages for the top 1% rose by 206.3%, while wages for the bottom 90% rose by 28.7%.

The reality is that $17.85 an hour isn’t a living wage for even a single person in many states, let alone a parent.

In 20 states and the District of Columbia, the living wage for a single person is over $17, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. In no state is the living wage below $15 an hour. And looking at the many, many jobs that just barely pay a living wage emphasizes how messed up the working people’s economy is. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 2, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the assistant managing editor at Daily Kos.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.