Forget the one percent. As I travel between my work and church in Philadelphia’s poorest zip codes and listen to presidential wanna-bes bemoan the middleclass economic squeeze, I think that most middle class people are economically out of touch too.
Consider this. Many of my middle class friends feel financially squeezed. They are looking for work. They may not get their money out of their comfortable homes when they go to sell them. Those who have had to “make work”—running errands, keeping kids, walking dogs–say things like: “I cannot charge less than $27/hour. I couldn’t live on it.” They consider a job that pays less than that exploitative.(Of course, our wise leaders have set minimum wage is $7.25. So clearly we expect people to be able to live on less.)
Meanwhile, my friend from church, a young African American man with an amazing gift at ministry to young people, tells me he wants to get on part time at the airport, loading luggage. At the moment, he is working there fulltime. I look quizzical.
“Well, they pay $10/hour, no benefits–but they limit the fulltimers to 40 hours because they don’t want to have to pay time and a half. If I get on as parttime, I would have a steady 60 hours a week at $10/hour instead of the 40 hours I’m limited to now.”
The public school my kids attend has a “teacher-staff” distinction. Teachers draw fairly middle class salaries—starting at $45K per year with benefits, and getting to well more than $60K per year with seniority. But classroom aids, lunch staff, playground and after school…you guessed it. Ten dollars an hour for a full forty hours/week. No benefits. No sick leave. (Try working around 400 young children and see if you go through a year without needing sick leave!) This is the going rate for school staff all over the city.
The same school pays its CEOs about $100,000/year each for fulltime work, complete with health insurance, sick leave, and other benefits. That’s five times as much per hour as the low-wage staff receives in salary, and its accompanied by expensive benefit packages. They get that because principals all over the city draw around that level of pay.
We are all living in a context of wealth polarization that has been intentionally constructed by national policy since the beginning of the 80s. The rich have gotten richer, and the poor have lost decent paying jobs which have gone abroad. But where families have two white-collar earners, the middle class has done well.
U.S. median household income has hovered between $45K and $50K for the last two decades. Half our total population makes below that, and half makes above it. But if you are middle class professional, two-earner family, how close is your income to $50K?
I remember my shock at hearing presidential candidates define “middle class households” as having wages $250,000/year or less. For the large percentage of the population pulling down less than $10/hour, $250,000 year is “really high cotton,” as grandmother used to say.
This is the middle class that sustains Philly’s large system of private secondary schools, many of which cost $12,000-$25,000/year.(I’ve heard a friend who lives in one of the richest zipcodes in the area, a professor at a small, private college, apologize to her peers about the fact that her son goes to a public school—and it’s a very rich suburban public school!) They drive up prices of housing in desired neighborhoods to $250,000 for a rather basic row or twin in the right city neighborhood.
Nonprofits are affected as well. No one blinks an eye anymore at executive salaries of $80-$120K, even in groups working with homeless people or the very poor. College graduates consider a starting salary of 35K at 21 years old a mediocre living. We are comfortable with the wealth polarization our system has created, in part because the polarization has allowed us to be oblivious to other financial realities.
So we let the organizations that hire us create high wage, healthcare, and vacation packages for white-collar-or-professional-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-them workers—and yet pay other workers a low wage with no time off and no medical benefits. For the most part, we are fine with that. That’s just how the system is.
I worked 17 years at a Christian nonprofit whose justice commitments meant it paid every employee on a common pay scale, regardless of responsibility or seniority. Wages were low, but healthcare was covered at 100 percent–because people have no control over their healthcare needs, and we all need it.
Christians would be much more visionary and prophetic if we all worked incredibly hard to help our workplaces reflect Sabbath economics. Advocate that every worker gets what middle class people feel is minimal–$10-$20/hour and full health care—before taking salary packages which deny other fulltime workers healthcare. Research pay scales at your workplaces (many are public)—or ask. Commit the great American sin: talk about your income and salary openly. And if you are really brave, ask people what theirs is.
My bold dream is that we say to one another: “Yes, we live in this world which is economically polarized, and has a structure and habit of paying leaders high wages and getting them healthcare while we treat this other class of fulltime workers very differently. But we have a different vision here at (insert your organization here) where all people get a liveable wage and healthcare.”
Offering a vision helps people see more clearly. Sometimes, it even inspires them to great acts of selflessness. I still believe that, in our deepest hearts, we recognize and thirst for justice. This is the hope that carries me through this world.
Dee Dee Risher is a writer who lives in Philadelphia. She is a founder of the Alternative Seminary and edits CONSPIRE magazine (www.conspiremagazine.com).