A bizarre article appeared in Time last week, entitled “‘I Work 3 Jobs and Donate Blood Plasma to Pay the Bills.’ This Is What It’s Like to Be a Teacher in America.” Other testimonials included: “My child and I share a bed in a small apartment, I spend $1,000 on supplies and I’ve been laid off three times due to budget cuts. I’m a teacher in America.” And: “I have 20 years of experience, but I can’t afford to fix my car, see a doctor for headaches or save for my child’s future. I’m a teacher in America.”
It’s mind-boggling how Time could portray workers in secure middle-class jobs with decent wages and great benefits as impoverished. Frankly, it’s insulting to workers in other occupations who actually are poor. In any case, I pulled data from the last three years of the Current Population Survey to answer some relevant questions never posed in the Time article.
What is the poverty rate for public-school teachers? 1.1 percent, including the small fraction who are unemployed. What is their median household income? $106,000. What is their unemployment rate? 0.7 percent, reflecting the rarity of job loss in the public sector. How much do teachers rely on secondary income? Over 97 percent of the personal income reported by teachers comes from their teaching jobs. How much time do teachers spend working? During the school year, teachers work 41 hours per week, including time working at home and on weekends. Over the whole calendar year, teachers work about 83 percent as much as private-sector professionals.
The empirical reality obviously does not square with Time’s anecdotes. Sadly, however, the debate over teacher compensation has been moving backward. The traditional argument was not that teachers are living in desperate poverty, but simply that they are underpaid relative to their skills. For example, the union-affiliated Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has been publishing reports since the early 2000s that claim teachers receive less compensation than workers with the same education and experience. Andrew Biggs and I showed that EPI’s analysis undervalues important benefits, especially the guaranteed nature of government pensions. Moreover, there is no reason to expect that teaching should be paid the same as the average occupation requiring a college degree. Workers are compensated based on the supply and demand for their particular skills, not for how many years they spent in school. (If schooling is all that matters, then accountants should be outraged that engineers out-earn them by 25 percent.)
EPI touts the same underpaid-teachers report every year without acknowledging our criticisms — in fact, without acknowledging any new work that contradicts its thesis. But instead of seeking balance, the media have upped the ante. They now use the annual EPI report as a springboard to talk about eleven-hour days and third jobs and blood for cash. They have turned middle-class workers into a bunch of Oliver Twists laboring at the parish poorhouse. That’s propaganda, and it needs to stop.