As a college graduate with an advanced degree who holds a ”professional” job, who happens to be married to a fellow college graduate with an advanced degree, one might not think that I have much in common with the men and women who work in low paying, service jobs. Think again, in fact I think that most of us have a great deal in common with the folks who prepare our food, take care of our kids and provide the very needed yet unseen and unwanted jobs that most of us pretend don’t exist.
Today many fast food workers across the U.S. are embarking on a one day walkout in protest over low wages. For the average fast food worker, wages average $8.74 an hour, and despite what many think, fast food jobs are not just the domain of high school and college kids. Increasingly these are positions held by adults with families. There aren’t too many places in the United States where one can actually live more than a subsistence living with that wage, never mind what that means when one is raising a family on such a low wage. I know firsthand what that looks like for a family, I see many of these families in my day job as a social service provider. These are families that are working and working hard, yet they need food stamps and even visits to the local food pantry just to keep food on the table. Life is one long circle of struggle just to survive and live day to day.
However in America, our dirty little secret that we rarely speak of is just how hard survival has become for most of us. Sure, we have our one percenter’s and those just below the status of one percent. For the average American though the lifestyle that was taken for granted just a generation ago is starting to look more and more like a distant dream.
Back in what now seems like another lifetime; I put myself through both college and graduate school. Incurring enough debt along the way that in some parts of the US, you could buy a house with what I paid (borrowed) to finance my education. At the time, I was laboring under the false belief that a college education would translate into a higher salary and job stability.
Fast forward to my 40’s and despite the fact that I have a kid in college, I no longer sip from the cup of Kool-Aid that says education is the key to stability. Sure, if you are one of the few in the STEM sector, you probably are living a good life. For now the sciences and technology fields happen to be where the good paying jobs are located. But we can’t all be in those fields. In fact even if we all were in those fields, who would do the jobs that society needs to function? Even the clerk at Target is needed, we may have self-check-out lanes but humans still need to work at the store.
The reason that I bring this up is that there are more than a few Americans who don’t feel that those laboring away in fast food service jobs deserve an actual living wage which in many parts of the country would be approximately $15 an hour. After all, how hard is it to work the fryolater or flip burgers? I have never worked in fast food but having done a few stints as a waitress, I know that most so-called unskilled jobs require far more than most of us realize. I last worked in the food service industry in my second year of college doing a stint at an upscale eatery in Chicago. I left with a serious dislike of goat cheese and the realization that most people consider service people to be beneath them.
I also know that as technology grows by leaps and bounds that more and more industries that used to pay living wages like my husband’s field of journalism increasingly pay subsistence wages. Now that journalism is nothing more than “content”, anyone with fingers and a laptop can be a journalist or writer. As such, wages are not only stagnant but falling, 6000 word pieces for a whopping $30 don’t pay the bills. The same goes for photojournalists as evidenced by my hometown paper, The Chicago Sun-Times and their recent decision to fire all the full-time staff photographers and replace them with reporters armed with i-Phones who can report the news and take the photos or when need be, the paper will use freelancers. The good ole freelancers! The freelance life isn’t terribly bad until you hit your mid-40’s and realize that the annual mammogram and colonoscopy pretty much require that you have insurance and you can’t afford it on your freelance wages.
America is increasingly becoming a place where many of us toil away either as freelancers or work in part time jobs that really don’t cover all of our living expenses. If we are lucky we can play the Rob Peter to pay Paul game using our homes and credit cards to cover the expense of living that is no longer paid by our actual jobs. Eventually that game will catch up with us but if we are fortunate, we still have a relative or two to help us out and if not, welcome to poverty.
Today we may be talking about fast food workers and their plight to actually earn enough to live on but for many of us we are a lot closer to their plight than we are comfortable admitting. All work is valuable, instead of asking why a fast food worker deserves to earn $15 an hour maybe the question we should be asking is why a CEO needs to earn 354 times more than their average worker?