I give Labor Day some abuse on the home page today. But I do have a soft spot for the holiday for one reason: The first piece I ever had on National Review Online was a Labor Day piece about minimum-wage jobs. The wage numbers are from 2007:
In my neighborhood in the D.C. suburbs, fast-foot joints are offering upwards of $9 an hour plus free meals. Answering phones at the pet day-care center gets you $11/hour, making phone calls for a local survey company gets you $13/hour. Working as an assistant at an art gallery’s web store gets you $40,000 a year plus benefits. Doggie day care and art galleries: Damn you, heartless capitalism!
I probably should have mentioned something about the unhealthy reasons for wage inflation in the Washington area. I imagine that there are many people in the country who would love a $40,000-a-year job working for an art gallery.
On the recent National Review cruise in Norway, I was very happy to hear Ralph Reed use a word that the public faces of the Republican party use too infrequently: poverty. There are many pressing problems in American life, from terrorism to abortion, but the single most important long-term problem we have is reversing the declining prospects of Americans who are not bound for law school or Google. Republicans need to talk about this, but not until they learn how to talk about this. The enemy isn’t the poor but those who profit by the cultivation of dependency. The only solution is work.
There are few experiences in life as dispiriting as that of long-term unemployment — but consider how much more dispiriting it must be never to have had much prospect of rewarding work to begin with. The best kind of work pays in two ways: with money, obviously, but also with status. That doesn’t always work in the most straightforward manner: The people working at Starbucks are doing a job very similar to what people do at McDonald’s, but working at McDonald’s carries a stigma. I think that explains some of the paradox in having a country with relatively high unemployment and many jobs that go unfilled unless they are filled by illegal immigrants. The jobs done by illegals are not necessarily paying less than minimum wage; one finds examples of illegals making perfectly average wages. Many of those jobs are physically unpleasant, but many of them are simply jobs that Americans would be ashamed to have. Every time a politician speaks with contempt about “McJobs,” every time a person of influence uses ditch-diggers and janitors as examples of life’s losers, he is doing our country a disservice. There is dignity in all honest work.
Politicians used to talk about having “a job for every man who wants one,” but there are many men who do not seem to want jobs, or at least such jobs as are available to them. Changing the culture is usually not much of a policy recommendation, but it would help if we invested all productive work with the dignity it is due, and if we regarded even modest work as an occasion for pride rather than an occasion for shame. If the well-off and educated regard simple jobs with contempt, how can we expect the poor to do differently?