“we still need people to do the work that low-wage workers do”

Fast Food Strike Sign

Obviously this dude should just move out of NYC, right?

This is an easy link to recommend, mainly because it reiterates something I blogged about nearly three years ago addressing a stale argument: low-wage workers should just move to where the jobs are/where the money is/where it’s cheaper to live/etc if they don’t like what they’re doing. Except of course that doesn’t actually address the problem of not paying a living wage for that bucket-category of jobs that they leave behind.

From the Everyday Sociology Blog, on a new report from UC Berkeley concerning a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $13.25 an hour in Los Angeles, and “Who is a Low Wage Earner?” (my emphasis in bold):

The bulk of these workers are employed in restaurants, retail, health services, and administrative and waste management services. Right now, their median income is $16,000; in 2014, the federal poverty level for a two-person household is $15,730.

Much of what they earn goes to pay rent. The average rent in Los Angeles County is $1,471, more than the median monthly earnings of a low-wage worker. A recent report determined that Los Angeles was the least affordable city for renters in the country when comparing the cost of renting to median income. It is also the city with the highest proportion of renters compared with home owners; 52 percent rent their homes compared to the national average of about 35 percent. On average, renters in Los Angeles spend about 47 percent of their income on housing, according to the report.

This should be a wake-up call for anyone who is thinking about moving to Los Angeles. It’s tempting to suggest that low-wage workers move somewhere cheaper. They often do, and spend hours commuting by bus or by car. But we still need people to do the work that low-wage workers do if we want to go to restaurants, shop in retail establishments, have clean office buildings or health aids for those who are ill.

The possible third-machine age takeover of emotional labor notwithstanding, yes, we’ll “still need people to do the work that low-wage workers do” irrespective of what’s happening elsewhere in the local, regional, and national economy because those services are pretty much always and everywhere in demand.

This was something that came across strongly when I was doing work in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Jackson Hole is in Teton County, the richest county in America in terms of average household income at $296,778. On a lunch run to a nearby Subway I saw a ‘Help Wanted’ sign advertising part-time positions; for $10.00 an hour when the federal minimum wage was still $5.15, with housing provided. Almost needless to say I had to ask the dude behind the counter about it, and his response was essentially “Yeah, we can’t hire anyone for less than that, and even then you can’t afford rent so they give us a place to live.” The guy also mentioned that other fast food chains provided similar benefits.

Now I’m not sure if this is still the case but at least at that moment in time low-end employers had to go above and beyond to provide low-end subs and burgers and it still was not enough to survive without living in a glorified company apartment. Sure, any one of those workers could have moved to a location more amenable to that market skill level, but other people would have continued to apply because the demand was still there at some price just below livable — even though this comparably high wage arrangement probably explained why there appeared to be fewer of these places than my similarly-populated (and much, much poorer) hometown. Millionaires and billionaires still need their laundry dry-cleaned, lawns mowed, and nannies for their kids but certainly don’t want to pay any more than employers feel they need to charge while remaining profitable. Sometimes they’ll also like a five-dollar footlong, while everyone else still needs affordable options for dining out. Jackson Hole still wanted that level of work to be done.

(This experience was instructive and also entirely anecdotal. So you should know that Teton County has half the reported poverty rate of the national average (7.7 versus 14.3 percent, respectively) with a super-low population density. Of course it’s also worth noting that the more useful measurement of median household income is considerable lower at $67,073 (the top being $113,313 in Loudoun County, a D.C. suburb), but it’s still a hike above the national average of $51,324.)

The broader point is just worth reiterating; paying an unlivable wage for a entire regional category of labor is not a problem of too few working poor deciding to move. It’s a problem of not paying a living wage for their services, period.

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