6.19.2014

two cents, or thoughts on wages

U.S. penny backs, old versus new*

I've been thinking a lot about money lately, or rather that it seems I never have enough. And before you roll your eyes or label me greedy or lazy or inept, let me just state I have a full-time job making less than I made when I was 27 (which wasn't a high-paying job), even though between then and now I earned a master's degree. For two years, I've had near-12-hour days most weeks, leaving at 6:45 AM and getting home between 6:15 and 6:45 PM, depending on traffic or train delays or whether I get off the train early and walk a bit longer after sitting on my rump all day as required by the job. I live downtown but work in the suburbs in two different locations, one of which is actually in another state. I don't eat out or go to movies in theaters. I don't use credit cards. I buy most everything secondhand. I attend free cultural events like book readings and museum nights and concerts in the park, nothing with a fee. I pay for basic cable I don't watch, only because the bundle is cheaper than Internet alone. I never travel anymore. I read library books instead of buying them. In fact, I practice most of the tricks suggested by simple-living proponents like Vicki Robin and Janet Luhrs who argue for thoughtful life choices, reuse, saving instead of spending, and scaling back lifestyles, and I'm still not getting ahead. In fact, I'm barely getting by. Something is wrong with this picture. And it isn't just me.


Portland City Hall vegetable garden

For the record, if a person doesn't have enough money in the bank to cover emergency expenses for six months, she is considered living paycheck-to-paycheck as one of the "working poor." Over three-quarters (76%) of Americans are living this way, so I'm certainly not alone. We are not all over-spenders, however, or debtors. So why should a well educated person like myself working full-time be poor at all and able to save very little each month? Back in my late 20s, I owned a used car; now I can't afford a car at all. Back then, I paid more in Bay Area rent than I do now on Portland rent, but food, gas, health care, and utilities are more expensive than fifteen years ago, and with the state of the California drought, food and other prices are only going to spike.


yellow Julia Child hybrid tea rose, South Park Blocks, Portland


ladybug on yellow Julia Child hybrid tea rose, South Park Blocks, Portland


ladybug hunting aphids on Julia Child hybrid tea rose, South Park Blocks, Portland

For thirty-five years, the American middle class has been shrinking, turning poor, their economic gains swallowed up by the robber barons at the top who have a larger percentage of the income pie than at any time since 1927. Prices on almost everything are rising (other than clothing, toys, and electronics, which are essentially built to self-destruct in planned obsolescence)—inflation has been rising—racing with paycheck raises, which are barely keeping up. And if you aren't feeling the pinch, well good for you, but that means you aren't paying attention. Take a longer view of economic history.


red rose garden with bronze Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider statue, South Park Blocks, Portland

Consider this. My parents earned high-school diplomas with mediocre grades. My father liked sports and my mother liked boys with nice cars. Neither considered college—they didn't need to. My mother had taken secretarial courses in typing and shorthand in high school and so began working as a secretary (the human word processors of their day) even before graduation. At age 18 in the mid-1960s, she paid cash for her first car, a VW Karmann Ghia, which she threw everything she owned into the back of before driving down to the Bay Area to make her mark. She found her own apartment, with no roommate, and drove her own paid-for car, all on a secretary's wages, with enough left over to buy a closetful of matching new dresses and kitten heels in colors like pumpkin, lemon, and watermelon. She dated, dined out, driving back and forth on the freeways past the South Bay orange groves that no longer exist. Within a couple years, she'd become a secretary at IBM.

Meanwhile, my father, who'd grown up in San Jose but wasn't quite talented enough for professional sports, took a job in the mail room at IBM, where his mother worked as an executive secretary. IBM was not where my parents met, however; they happened to be living across the street from each other. My mother washed her car in the driveway while watching him shoot hoops over in his driveway. I imagine there was a lot of bending over hoods and such. "He had," she said, "a nice back" (as if this were something to found a marriage on).

Their marriage lasted 14 years, but back when they moderately liked each other, before kids, before she moved everyone back to her small Oregon hometown to live next door to her parents, they bought a brand-new ranch house in San Jose. My father drove a baby-blue, paid-for Mustang that matched his eyes. By then, they were still only in their early 20s. On a personal level, the rumbles and tremors and cracks in the foundation of the marriage had already begun, had existed from the beginning, but monetarily they were doing fine. They even took road trips to Mexico with my grandparents. My paternal grandmother, the IBM executive secretary, bought a vacation cabin in the Sierra Nevadas, a second home. It was altogether a different age, and that leveling of wealth is long over. If my parents had stayed in California, their no-frills, no-swimming-pool, cookie-cutter 1960s ranch house would now easily be worth a million dollars. But so what? The point is that in their early 20s with minimal education, my parents could afford to pay cash for new cars, new clothes, and a new house in the heart of Silicon Valley by working as a secretary and a mail clerk. How times have changed.


designer birdhouse, Cultural District, Portland

By contrast, today my close friends all have master's degrees, if not Ph.D.s or a B.S. from Berkeley. The few friends I have who actually own houses have large mortgages they'll be paying off for 30 years. Typically, they were also helped out with the down payment by their baby boomer parents, either as a loan or a gift. Both spouses must work to maintain a bare middle-class lifestyle. They usually share a single car. They pay half a salary for day care alone. And they don't take fancy foreign vacations. Yet most of my other friends, a larger portion, only wish they were lucky enough to strap on a 30-year mortgage, being single, underemployed or precariously employed, and often living with roommates to share expenses.

Obviously, if my close friends and I had serious aptitude for number crunching or computer coding as accountants or engineers rather than being artist types, the story would be different. Those good with numbers tend to have plenty of houses and cars, good salaries, plenty of savings, retirement accounts. My friend Jeff, a fellow English major and former high school teacher, has several friends from high school with mere bachelor's degrees who are now making between $100-200,000 a year over at companies like Intel as engineers and programmers. But as I've written about before, some of us aren't naturally good with numbers and instead have other talents like writing, teaching, wood-working, or handyman skills. Should we not be able to afford a lower-middle-class lifestyle and instead be forever impoverished, unable to buy a home or support a family? Single-income lifestyles are also very different from double-income lifestyles these days, I can assure you from personal experience as I watched my standard of living plummet after my Web engineer husband took off with his comparatively fat income. Surely my well educated and underemployed friends and I are not the only people facing such issues.

Many comments to articles I've read about scaling down expenses to save money are full of self-righteousness, like Well, I can save money easily. Everyone else could, too, if only they weren't so lazy and entitled, too good to flip burgers. This blames the victim rather than spotlighting crucial social factors—low wages combined with rising costs—impeding the ability to save money and plan for the future rather than living paycheck-to-paycheck. Educated people shouldn't have to flip burgers, by the way. That's why they went to college. They have other skills that should be useful to civilization.


blonde mannequin robot hawking mattresses at Glen Echo and McLoughlin

I've also had well paid people in computer-industry jobs tell me, "Oh, but teaching must be so rewarding." Well, teaching is inherently rewarding; it feels good to help people learn and grow, but it's also frustrating as hell at times, and why should working in private education mean I don't get to buy a house unless I have a working spouse, but you can afford one on your own salary? Why do I, who am more educated than most people, have to remain poor just because I work in education? We can all comfort ourselves with the truism that Life isn't fair, but that isn't the whole story. Society isn't built to be fair. That's the whole point of capitalism. Socioeconomic factors are firmly at play, creating vast disparities in wealth that many people don't want to face because that would mean making large changes to the system—and change is scary. Real change disrupts the status quo. But I've been offering up anecdotes, which can't be trusted, so here are some more facts.

Although people in low-wage jobs are "far more" educated than they were in 1968, the Federal minimum wage is 23% less (adjusted for inflation), despite productivity having more than doubled (see also: family anecdote above). Corporate profits and productivity are way up, but wages haven't kept up over the years, so inflation has negatively affected standard of living for all but the top social classes. This is exactly why a socialist politician in Seattle, Kshama Sawant, recently led a successful $15 minimum wage campaign, despite having to bend by spreading the increase over seven years (by which point inflation will likely have eaten up much of the increase). The $15-wage idea, if not yet the implementation, has been spreading to other left-leaning places like San Francisco and Portland. To put this into a more global perspective, Switzerland recently considered but rejected a $25 minimum wage, though some businesses began voluntarily offering that wage increase because of the union-led campaign. Australia's minimum wage is $16.37 an hour and rising. Even the International Monetary Fund is now arguing the U.S. must raise its ultra-low minimum wage or growth will suffer. Let me repeat: even the IMF says we have a wage problem. Chew on that.


blonde mannequin robot with mattress sale signs, side view

To return to the personal—ever yoked to the political—my medical doctor advises that I need a different job, one that doesn't require twelve-hour days while paid for only eight, one that allows more time for exercise, for mindfulness (meditation), for performing random acts of kindness, for more sleep—for a less-stressed heart and a healthier life. Mind you, that's my doctor talking. What I want even more than money is time.

One of the key takeaways from Your Money or Your Life is that "money is life energy," the amount of life given up to accrue that handful of green bills or the stuff bought with it. It's a dilemma because everyone must make enough money to cover expenses with some left over for savings. I do need a job making more money, money to sock away for emergencies, for insurance, for travel, for possible (though unlikely) future retirement. But I also need more time in my day and weeks to create a fulfilled, contented life.


planter pansies, downtown Portland

I left a roommate situation last summer that was making me miserable after four years in favor of living alone, but solitude has come with the price of flat-lined savings. I'd been starting to see my savings jump right after giving up the car when still with the roommate, but now that amount is instead going directly to the apartment, a small one-bedroom in an old, worn building, nothing fancy, nothing extravagant. The one-bedroom was chosen instead of a studio in the same building because the studio had even less light, light being crucial to health and mood in an overcast climate. (The one-bedroom doesn't cost much more per month than the studio, anyway.)

And it's not the living downtown per se that's the issue, either. Living downtown in an older building is no more expensive than similar apartments in other parts of Portland, as many falsely assume. When I was apartment hunting last June, prices for apartments were the same regardless of neighborhood, unless a person moves out to the farthest suburbs of the metro area, meaning Gresham or Hillsboro, which is the opposite of a compact walking lifestyle. (I recently learned an acquaintance just bought a condo in Gresham for $60,000. I didn't know any real estate in Portland was that cheap, but then it's also way out in Gresham, so there's the rub.)

The problem is that without a roommate or live-in partner, I'm paying well beyond the recommended 30% of my income on housing (rent plus utilities), which is a budget no-no. Yet this is the reality for many Americans these days as rents are up and availability down for affordable units across the country. But that's exactly why I gave up the car: to live alone. I love living alone. And I love living downtown: everything's within walking distance here in the city core. I can stumble upon social events I'd never have known about if living farther out. Plus, daily walking is good for you. Cars aren't. Neither are long commutes on a train or bus. But I'm not saving money. And I have very little time to myself for anything other than eating and sleeping and showering and cooking and cleaning up and prepping a lunch for the next workday, meaning the bare minimum. It doesn't feel most weeks like much of a life, only survival—unsustainable.


strolling guitarists, South Park Blocks

To better my mood, I've been trying to get out more, like attending free cultural events after long workdays, attending the Rose Festival, going summer garage sale-ing. It helps, but it's not enough.

So this week I've taken off work, unpaid, for a real breather between my two-job school year and before the back-to-back client summer schedule starts up next week and continues till September, at which point school starts again. This is my one summer vacation—a staycation, rather—but mainly it's a calculated chunk of time to start a serious job hunt. I either need to land a different second job by September—which was my choice, an individual statement of protest against the insanity of daily commuting for two-and-a-half hours between home and two different job locations—or else an entirely different full-time job downtown, doing administration—modern secretary work—for someplace like an insurance or legal office, where I could at least walk to work. Guess which choice I'd prefer? Good-bye, teaching. And since more of those silly dancing sign-holding jobs on busy suburban intersections are being taken over by busty blonde mannequin robots who work for free and never complain about working conditions, that's at least one job I won't bother applying for. They're already taken.


mannequin robot worker, SE McLoughlin

*Is it just me or does the latest design for the back of the U.S. penny, which I only recently noticed after picking up a stray penny off my apartment stairwell—since nobody bothers to pick up worthless pennies anymore—remind you of a police shield filled with prison bars, sign of the growing police state?

Are you or your family better off financially than five years ago? What about compared to 10, 20, 30 years ago?

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