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Janna Malamud Smith: "Incomes have become so grotesquely skewed that anyone who chooses to teach is choosing a tougher path." (cybrarian77/flickr)

It was a sunny Sunday, and we were enjoying brunch with a friend we hadn’t seen for a while. The conversation was engaged and pleasant until our friend, filling us in on his new daughter-in-law, suddenly became angry as he was speaking about her.

What had she done? She had chosen to work as a grade school teacher. Why did her choice infuriate him? Because she wouldn’t earn enough money to help pay the couple’s school debt, buy a house or educate their children.

The United States has gone in an opposite direction from the one my generation wanted and anticipated, when we hoped to make poverty disappear and see the middle class prosper.

Since I am a clinical social worker happily married to a school teacher, I clenched my teeth in irritation at the blunt comment. It felt devaluing, harsh and personal. I bristled. So he’s saying she’s a bad wife, and I’m a chump married to a chump? And then I thought, I would be proud if either of our grown children decided to teach grade school… Finally, a reality check: Stop being so self-righteous. Your mom paid for your children’s college. What if she hadn’t? What if she hadn’t left you some money so that you don’t have to bear the full economic brunt of your own choices? You’d be scrambling, and struggling with debt and very possibly ruing your decisions.

The more I pondered our conversation, the more I was able to separate my friend’s worry, which I understand, from the way he phrased it, which put me off. My parents had no money when I was young. They felt wary of giving it too much importance — of allowing it to overshadow other virtues — and passed along to me an aversion to ostentation and greed. By the time my father made some money (through the unlikely route of writing fiction), I was already embracing the 1960s’ counterculture values that put working for the common good above personal gain and that led me to social work.

But now I wonder: Would I choose differently today? The United States has gone in an opposite direction from the one my generation wanted and anticipated, when we hoped to make poverty disappear and see the middle class prosper. Instead, the rich have gotten insanely richer. Everyone else is juggling credit cards.

Incomes have become so grotesquely skewed that anyone who chooses to teach is choosing a tougher path. So, too, with pursuing social work, or working in the public sector or for a non-profit; or working as a union organizer, an adjunct professor, a nurse or a public defender. Choosing any of these important, wonderful professions — thanks to our country’s ever-widening income divide — disproportionately disadvantages the young adult whose peers choose careers in finance, big-business or corporate law.

It’s one thing to make a career choice that commits you to earning less. It’s another to be judged harshly for it — or devalued. We too closely, too narrowly, link wealth and public regard.  TWEET Offer to serve the underserved and your status falls. And because it’s so hard to live in the middle class and pay the mortgage, any decision not to pursue the big salary can make you seem (and feel) imprudent.

…we can decide to reverse a corrosive societal trend by cutting the ridiculous gap between the super rich and the rest; and putting that money toward all manner of useful ends, from lowering college debt, to raising the minimum wage.

If people work harder, or take bigger risks, or seek out difficult, specialized training or just get very lucky, I am glad for them to earn more than I do. But not 50 or 300 or 1,000 times more. That kind of income disparity chews up the social fabric. Wealth of that magnitude can’t help but breed greed, with its motto, “I’ve got mine. Too bad for you.”

And anyway, do the CEOs and financiers who are dealing themselves multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses really work harder than teachers wrangling small children all day or grading papers into the night? Are they seeking out more difficult training and labor than public defenders trying to get justice for people who can’t otherwise afford private lawyers? Does their daily stress level approach that of nurses quietly saving lives in intensive care units? Overall, are they taking a bigger risk than all the Americans who choose to work not for their own gain, but to nudge a society toward greater compassion? I’m not so sure.

Whatever else, it seems that my friend’s anger signals a social divide that threatens to become a chasm. It is also a wake-up call: Time for the rest of us to come to our senses. We can either fret ever more when our daughters-in-law choose service. Or we can decide to reverse a corrosive societal trend by cutting the ridiculous gap between the super rich and the rest; and putting that money toward all manner of useful ends, from lowering college debt, to raising the minimum wage.

And we’d all get a bonus that money cannot buy. Paying more to many and less to a few would go a long way toward energizing people’s self worth. It would restore a stronger sense of shared purpose. And it would invigorate our vision of public good.

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  • disqus_76C0PFpw8x

    “do the CEOs and financiers who are dealing themselves multi-million
    dollar salaries and bonuses really work harder than teachers wrangling
    small children all day or grading papers into the night?”–this here gets at the heart of the problem.

    I wonder what this country would look like if there were a law that stated that CEOs could not pay themselves more than 100x the salary of their lowest paid worker. I cannot imagine that a burger flipper or janitor is really working more than 100x less hard than the CEO of the company who hired him. We have reached a point where salaries are completely disconnected from the actual worth of the work they are compensating.

    • Guest

      You don’t get it!

  • Aaron

    Michael Moore made some excellent points in his “America is not broke” speech in Madison after the Governor broke up the unions, it’s on youtube. How the far right has demonized teachers unions and teachers themselves while guiding policy into a dramatic trickle up direction to make the 1 percent richer than ever in history is incomprehensible to me. Speaking from a local perspective, the lack of money is partly a function of reduced tax valuations from the ’07 crash, huge losses of property value are still being suffered and the budgets have suffered big-time. That’s why I get upset at, for example, that Citibank’s little fine last week, after which their stock ROSE, does nothing to help us and teachers all over the country who have lost their jobs. There is a lot of stupidity about how we ended up like this. It’s not because a teacher is overcompensated that localities are broke, it’s because the a-holes on wall street crashed the economy and not one went to jail, and time after time after time after time, we keep allowing the wealthiest and corporations to get even RICHER and send our good jobs overseas and even reward them for it. Microsofts 18,000 job cuts today are to make them more “agile”, oh that’s nice, agile is good right? We have to put America first, and that includes taking care of the 99 percent, not allowing the 1 percent to get and keep almost all of the generated wealth.

  • Vandermeer

    Thanks for your article. Just received a retainer bill for a thousand dollars to prepare a somewhat straightforward will from an atty’s office. As a teacher contacted and kept updated daily when their children were having difficulties plus taught over 125 kids a day social studies… no extra money for my advise or monitoring or meetings. No pay for spending Friday nights at dances. I’ve taken as many post graduate and post master classes as an atty but I can’t charge anyone for my level of education. Yes, I agree… those of us who teach are not regarded by society as having important jobs or at least important enough to be compensated proportionately with some professions. After 40 years of teaching, I still think I made the right decision to teach but didn’t want it for my daughter.

  • PCMacGuy49

    The plutocrats who run this country don’t give a hoot n’ a holler about the humble masses and their “commitment” to their jobs:

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
    ― Edward L. Bernays

  • BrettMcCarty

    The issue can evolve from service sector jobs to all middle wage jobs. I have many colleagues who don’t make as much as my children’s teachers. Colleagues who get 2-4 weeks paid time off each year and work 10 hour days. I agree with this statement “Paying more to many and less to a few would go a long way toward energizing people’s self worth. It would restore a stronger sense of shared purpose. And it would invigorate our vision of public good.” and would broaden it beyond teachers/nurses/social workers/fire fighters/cops/etc.

  • geraldfnord

    The ‘who works hard’ argument doesn’t signify after a couple of generations’ Marketolatrous persuasion, since in the Market it is how much one’s work were valued that counts…this is good to the extent that we value that which the better angels of our natures know were best for us—e.g., learning vs ignorance, growing food without poisoning bees vs growing more and worse food and poisoning, or valuing one of a very few who can perform a vital task as well as needed, e.g. a pilot or air traffic controller or a surgeon—but bad because many of us actively assign high values to things that are not what we think (or say) we ‘want’. or even objectively need, at least to live and to thrive.

    If we had more legitimate power-centres in our country, it might be more tenable: you can’t live on honour, but it can make living in straitened circumstances more bearable…but we seem to have devolved into a society that with the exception (for very many) of the military, and of religion for others, status is tied directly to wealth and to income. Primates in a band get good or bad treatment, including access to food and sex-partners, grooming, and general consideration, according to status, and when money is nearly alone in determining status, it ensures that those who have much will be given much, and those with little must fear even that’s being taken-away.

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