A living wage


In the context of a discussion about why one low-skilled worker's salary is no longer enough to support a family,  MC writes:

Look, there have always been people who could command a wage that could support a family, and people who could not.

In the old days, the people who could not were called women. And various other names related to skin color that I will not include here. That whole notion of earning a family wage with no specialized education or skills only applied to a subset of the population, and the organizations protecting their interests worked to keep it that way.

Nowadays, white men have no special protections. If they want to buy a house and raise a family, they need to learn a trade better than Walmart clerk. And they may need to move away from depressed rural economies.

The gain is that a lot of people who never had a shot at the good jobs in the past do have that shot now. White men are competing with everyone now, and they can't coast.

They are even competing with the entire populations of China and India. Terrifying thought, but you can't get around it.

The 50s were fake, so we can't really use them as our baseline. And even that fake only applied to some people.

It's also worth remembering that companies were not only legally allowed, but expected, to pay married men more that anyone else, and that ordinary people lived much, much more modestly than they do now.  Many workers lived with other family members, or in rooming houses--the houses in television and movies from the era are, just as now, abnormally large because average-sized houses would be too small to film.  In the popular mind, every blue collar worker in 1950 was pulling down a hefty wage at GM, but union membership peaked at about a third of workers, and most of those jobs were at companies that didn't have the profits, or the freedom from competition, to support those kinds of wages.  A lot more blue collar workers were people like the mechanics and pump operators at my grandfather's gas station, who raised families on . . . the kind of money you could generate working at a gas station.

Our memories are distorted by two things:  first, the tendency of all cultures to focus on their own outliers (many fewer people work for silicon valley startups in real life than in either our entertainment, or the popular imagination), and second, the fact that the people who have written about the period are abnormally likely to have come from successful families who pushed them through an education.  Their memory of a well-appointed blue-collar childhood in a nice suburb on Dad's generous steelworker wages endures; few memories of a straggling blue-collar childhood as the child of a factory janitor do, because those kids were less likely to go to college and become people of letters.  The successful and educated are disproportionately likely to be represented in all parts of our written and spoken culture, from man on the street interviews to letters to the editor.  History really is written by the winners.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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