When Lisa Hyde-Miller started her new job as director of a community center in an impoverished neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, she figured she had a pretty good idea what the local families needed: a food pantry, a job training program, maybe a basketball league for the kids.
What she didn't expect, as she knocked on door after door asking residents how her center could serve them, was the request she heard again and again: We need scrubs.
It turned out that many of the local women already had jobs, many of them full-time. But as home health aides and personal care aides earning an average of $24,000 a year, their wages were so low that they could barely afford to buy their own uniforms.
Over the next 10 years, the occupations with the most job growth in America will not be the techy jobs that most of us think of as the jobs of the future, like, say, solar-panel technicians or software engineers. Instead, they'll be the jobs held by the women in Hyde-Miller's community center neighborhood: home health aide and personal care aide. More than one million new aides will be needed over the next decade, in addition to the 3.2 million already in the field, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday. What's more, six of the 10 occupations providing the most new jobs over the next decade will pay less than $27,000 a year. That's more than 15 million people, working hard at jobs that simply don't pay the bills.
In Republican circles, it is fashionable to suggest that every low-wage worker should pull herself out of her low-wage job by the bootstraps. Democrats, for their part, want us to believe that every worker could, and should, move up and out of her low-wage job with better access to education and opportunity. But they're both missing a glaring problem.
If your grandmother's home health aide goes off to college to become a registered nurse, that's great for the aide personally, but you still need someone to take care of Grandma. Who's it going to be? A new aide — who is going to earn just as little as the aide who came before.
And if Miss Carol leaves her job at your kids' day-care center to go off and become an elementary-school teacher, that's wonderful for her personally, but who's going to be at the day-care center tomorrow morning handing out graham crackers? Another child-care worker, who will earn just as little, and struggle financially just as much, as Miss Carol did.
If the original job left behind still needs to be done, and the wages for that job are still terrible, neither scholarships nor bootstraps fix the underlying problem — they just shift the problem onto someone else.
Our society has entire lines of work that are respectable, socially valuable ways to earn a living, but pay wages that fail to support the dignity of a decent lifestyle. (Ironically, we rhapsodize about respecting our elders and cherishing our children, yet we pay the folks who help us care for them some of the lowest wages in the nation.)
We box low-wage workers into an impossible situation, holding down their financial prospects with an impossibly low minimum wage, yet turning around and shaming them for needing safety-net supports when those wages aren't enough to live on.
There's a deep-seated swirl of magical thinking at the heart of it all — the vague notion that somehow "good" low-wage workers can just magically "make it work" despite the impossible arithmetic, on wages that in no way relate to the actual cost of putting food on the table or gas in the car. It is mathematically impossible — and a whole swath of our population struggles to do it every day.
Despite visions of a robot-filled, Jetson-like future, many of these roles won't be supplanted by automation. Do you really want your kid's day-care center, or your grandma's nursing home, staffed by robots? Yeah, me neither.
Okay, so what if we could give every low-wage worker the opportunity for a different, better-paying job — even the worker who took Miss Carol's place after she went to college? Well, remember that movie about the Rapture, where people were suddenly plucked from their cars and homes and dinner tables, and spirited away? If every person in it who earned less than a living wage disappeared from their post tomorrow, here's what would happen:
You'd have to take your kids to work every day, because there'd be no workers at the day-care center; there'd be no food on the shelves at the grocery store, because there'd be no one to stock them. There'd be no meals on any restaurant table, because there'd be no server to bring them; there'd be no sheets on any hotel bed, because there'd be no housekeepers to put them there. At the hospital, you'd have to wheel yourself into surgery because there'd be no orderly to help you; without aides to help residents bathe, dress, eat, take their medication, use the bathroom, or walk without falling, the scene at your elderly aunt's nursing home — and nearly every nursing home in America — would quickly devolve into a full-on nightmare. We wouldn't simply be inconvenienced; our entire lives, and the lives of everyone around us, would grind to a halt.
So what are we to do? This is normally the part where folks point out that many low-wage workers are employed by large corporations that can reasonably pay higher wages because they are routinely able to absorb price fluctuations in other costs of doing business without incident (burger ingredients, say, or the cost of fuel for Walmart's trucks), and manage to pay their CEOs eye-popping sums while still recording multi-billion-dollar profits — I'm lookin' at you, Walmart ($499 billion in profits), Taco Bell parent company Yum Brands ($7 billion), nursing home chain HCR Manor Care ($5 billion). This is where folks point out the irony of a highly profitable company elbowing its workers toward government assistance offices and food banks for food and health care, rather than paying their workers enough to buy those things on their own. This is also where folks talk about Henry Ford's pragmatism in paying his workers well enough that they could afford to buy Ford cars, and point out all the cities that successfully raised their wages, and — surprise! — did just fine.
This is all important stuff. And it's all true. But we need to take a step back a bit further.
If we recognize that millions of American workers over the next 10 years will be needed to provide valuable, socially necessary services to the American people… and that bootstraps and education will simply push out one underpaid worker only to be replaced by another… and that these jobs will not be replaced by automation because we don't want our elders and our babies cared for by robots… and that our society will skitter to a halt if these jobs are not filled… we really only have two choices:
One, we can create the framework for a society of equal citizens by requiring a fair wage for all American workers, so that our fellow citizens working full-time in these millions of jobs — these jobs we all just agreed are vital to all of us — have the freedom to live decent, independent, dignified lives.
Or two, we can do nothing, and, by default, create a permanent underclass perpetually doomed to needing government aid to stay alive, and perpetually shamed for needing it: our very own American caste system.
It is a decision about nothing less than who we are as a nation, and what kind of people we want to be.
On a Monday morning shortly after completing her interviews around the neighborhood, Lisa Hyde-Miller pulled boxes upon boxes of hospital scrubs out of the back of a large van, laid them out neatly on tables in the front room of the community center, put a sign out front ("Free scrubs!"), and waited. Within the hour, there was a long line snaking out the door; a day later, the tables, which had contained more than 400 uniforms, were empty.
Hyde-Miller was pleased to know she'd given the women something they wanted and needed, something that would help them support their families. But she also knew that, given the choice, they'd have traded the free scrubs in a heartbeat, for a living-wage paycheck and the dignity of buying their own uniforms themselves.
Editor's note: This story originally misstated the owner of McDonald's. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.