By Savanah Mandeville
Last weekend I was getting breakfast with a friend when the topic arose that she was looking for a new job. We decided to scroll through Indeed while we waited for our food and see if anything looked promising.
I saw a posting for a Residential Advocate at The Lafayette House, a local women’s shelter. I myself have always thought I’d like to work at The Lafayette House if the right opportunity came up, and with my friend being just as big a SJW as I am, I figured it’d be a good fit for her.
“Hey, there’s a job opening at The Lafayette House,” I said as I clicked.
Then, glaring at the top of the page, it read:
“$9 an hour.”
“Well shit, never mind,” I told her. “It’s only $9 an hour. It’s probably an administrative assistant job or something.”
Before I abandoned the post, I read the job description:
“Do you have a desire to help others? Do you want meaningful, mission-focused work? Full time overnight (midnight to 8 am) positions and part time evening and weekend positions available at Lafayette House helping women and children heal from trauma and substance use disorders. Must be at least 21 years old with high school diploma or GED. Must pass Family Care Registry background screening.”
Helping women and children heal from trauma and substance use disorders? For $9 an hour? Not to diminish the already under-appreciated work administrative assistants do, but helping people overcome trauma and addiction is a whole other ball game. (That being said, every administrative assistant in America deserves to make more than $9 an hour.) Seeing that $9 is what they’re offering to pay someone to do this kind of tremendously important, emotional heavy lifting (at ungodly hours) was truly appalling. I don’t care if the job only requires a high school education – it’s hard work and it’s necessary work. There are a lot of traditionally masculine jobs out there that only require a high school education that pay extremely well.
As I munched on my French toast, I tried to put it from my mind, but I couldn’t help getting more and more agitated. I was jumping out of my skin and tempted to ask my server if they had a soap box in the back room.
Before I continue, I want to say this is in no way meant to be negative PR for The Lafayette House. The Lafayette House is an extremely important and necessary thing that we desperately need in our community. I’m not faulting LH administration for the low pay – there are a lot of factors at play on a national level that result in this type of pay scale, so to say the Lafayette House is guilty of exploiting the labor of its employees would be shortsighted albeit probably not entirely untrue. But still.
And while I was frustrated by the ridiculously low pay for that particular position, I can’t say I was surprised. I was personally affected by this sort of thing for most of my upbringing. My mom was a social worker for Early Head Start for 17 years, working with impoverished families with babies under the age of three, for low pay. She did it because she loved it and she was good at it. Really, really good at it. She helped lift many families out of poverty and she worked tirelessly day and night to help families get affordable or free childcare, get rides to doctor appointments, get hooked up with TANF and WIC, and so much more. She was a lifeline and angel to her clients – single parents, teen moms, undocumented moms, moms with spouses in prison or deported, people in generational poverty – but she was paid pennies for her work. We always struggled when I was growing up because my mom’s income was the only one in our house, and it’s a strange thing when the social worker is just as broke as the people they’re trying to help. And being a government-funded agency, Early Head Start is always at risk of being eliminated depending on how conservatives were faring in the polls.
I worked for Early Head Start through college as an assistant and part of my job was intake applications for families, usually in their homes because they didn’t have transportation to the office. During this application process, I asked a series of questions to determine just how many Cheetos this bottom-feeding couch-dweller was eating per day in lieu of steady employment so I could help them steal hardworking taxpayer money to fund lavish lobster dinners for their boyfriend-of-the-week … Okay no. Half the people I interviewed had full-time jobs but had fallen through the proverbial crack and didn’t qualify for state-subsidized childcare so they turned to us, and the other half were people in such devastating poverty that I can’t properly describe their situations in a way that would do them justice. I saw homes without a stitch of furniture, I met a homeless mom who’d recently escaped an abusive marriage with her newborn, I met a mom who pushed a stroller all the way to her baby’s doctor appointments because she had no other way to get there. I did that job for $8 an hour.
Why do these jobs pay so low when there’s a huge need for them? Social service offices have exploding waiting lists, especially around here. In Jasper County, the poverty rate is 16 percent, compared with 13.4 percent for the nation. The national poverty rates for minorities are even higher with 22.1 percent of Hispanics in poverty; 25.2 percent of African Americans; and 26.8 percent of Native Americans. According to this study by the United States Census Bureau, there were 39.7 million people in poverty in 2017, more than the entire population of Canada.
People need help and there are professionals out there willing to help them, so why aren’t we paying them for doing this valuable work? I have deduced that the reasons are systemic and boil down to the following assumptions: women deserve less pay, employers can take advantage of compassionate people, the government doesn’t want to pay for it, the poor don’t deserve to be helped, and low minimum wage equals lower wages for everyone.
Women’s Work is Undervalued
Jobs more likely to be held by women, such as teachers, early childhood workers, and social workers, typically pay less than jobs more likely held by men even if they are very similar. The pay gap for women of color is even larger than that for white women. For example, janitors (usually men) earn 22 percent more than maids and housecleaners (usually women). Occupations that are traditionally “women’s work” are undervalued for many reasons, including that they tend to be people-centered rather than profit-centered. There’s also the myth-that-won’t-die that women don’t need as much money because their husband is the supposed breadwinner. We all know this isn’t true or fair, but it still gives employers an excuse to pay less for women’s work, whether they’re doing it consciously or not. It’s wrong on so many levels.
Another problem is that jobs typically held by women are viewed by outsiders as more easy and cushy than they really are. One EHS coworker confided that her husband referred to her job as “stacking blocks with babies all day.” Donald Trump Jr. recently referred to teachers as losers at a rally in El Paso, TX. These hideous assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. These are high stress, demanding jobs. Social workers juggle enormous caseloads and give all they’ve got emotionally all day, every day and often suffer from burn out. The teacher protests across the nation have provided a look into the monumental stress our teachers are under. A friend who had previously worked in daycare told me that it was the most stressful job she’d ever had. What’s more, daycare workers often make minimum wage – we pay the mechanics who fix our cars and the hair stylists who cut our hair more than we pay the people taking care of our kids. Why do we allow this?
My next theory is the assumption that many helping professions can be treated as a “labor of love,” and that people will do them for low pay because they care. I get it – if I thought I could survive on $9 an hour, I’d be tempted to take the job at The Lafayette House because I think I would love it. It’s why my mom did what she did for so long, and why workers like her often feel too guilty to “abandon” their clients and seek better pay elsewhere. But what about the principle of the matter? Are we really, as a society, going to sit back and exploit people’s compassion and desire to help others? Is that really where we wanna be when Jesus comes back?
The Poor Don’t Deserve Help
Which brings me to my next point – the two dirty Cs: Capitalism and Calvinism.
America didn’t become a world superpower by prioritizing human rights. Expansionism through the expulsion and slaughter of Native Americans; slavery of Africans; Chinese railroad workers; and horrific working conditions during the Industrial Revolution all contributed to America’s economic growth that helped the U.S. boom onto the world stage after the World Wars, the time period that, I think, Trumpeters are referring to when they talk about making America great “again.”
That wealth > human rights ideology paired with the early influence of the Calvinists that trickles down (pun intended) to this day is why we have such contempt for the poor in this country. Calvinism is a denomination of Protestantism that broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. Along with Puritans, Calvinists flocked to the New World and are often cited among the primary founders of the United States. Calvinism preaches the doctrine of “predestination,” or the belief that even before creation, God appoints some people to eternal salvation and the rest to eternal damnation for all their sins, even their original sin. Those predestined to go to heaven receive grace and blessings from God during their time on Earth, often in the form of power and wealth.
Calvinism’s roots in America are why a lot of the religious Right still believe that rich people are inherently good and poor people are inherently bad and deserve their lot in life, and, among other things, have resulted in modern day slavery: the unpaid labor of inmates in for-profit prisons.
These combined with a belief that America is the land of opportunity where anyone who works hard enough can be successful (financially), further contributes to a lot of the Right’s disdain for the poor and their unwillingness to help them. If someone isn’t rich, it’s their own fault. This also leads many working class people in Southwest Missouri to falsely inflate their sense of economic prosperity – identifying as middle class when they really aren’t – and accepting too-low wages and tax breaks for billionaires rather than face reality, demand better for themselves, and vote for their own economic interests.
Government Funded Agencies
As most welfare agencies are government funded, we’re at the mercy of our elected leaders and fellow voters to give a shit about poor people, and as I mentioned before, we’re not a nation built on compassion for the least among us, no matter what poetry is inscribed at the base of The Statue of Liberty. I was always amazed by how many of my coworkers at Early Head Start identified as conservative and would willingly vote themselves out of funding and, potentially, out of their own job. Many of them I wouldn’t consider real advocates for the clients they were supposed to be helping, but rather someone collecting a paycheck. I’ll say it right here…if you are prejudiced against poor people, you have no business being in social work. I think a lot of the women I worked with at Early Head Start weren’t really suited for social work, and if they’d been born male would’ve never considered that line of work in the first place. So, all that to say that the Missouri government isn’t too keen on funding social services nor are voters around here willing to elect leaders to push for higher funding, not even voters who would benefit from it. This wasn’t true for all of my coworkers, but I think that if social work was valued more highly it would inspire more passion in the people doing the work, attract better employees, and reduce turnover.
The last thing I want to talk about is minimum wage. No, $9 an hour in Missouri is not minimum wage, but when the bar is set so low at $8.60 ($7.85 prior to 1/1/19), it can lead employers to honestly believe that the $9-$12 an hour range is a living wage (it’s not) and it can lead employees to believe they’re just lucky to be making more than the bare minimum (they’re not), so they accept jobs where they are worked to the bone for crumbs.
Thus, the minimum wage does more than ensure workers are paid a living wage (or at least that was the original intent), it sets the precedent for everyone else. We have to raise the minimum wage to shift the entire dynamic. As we can see, that is finally starting to happen in Missouri.
Can you imagine living in a country that values people over profit? A country that invests in people and prioritizes improving people’s lives? A country that cares about lending a helping hand instead of pointing an accusing finger? People don’t go into helping professions because they’re easy; they do it because they believe in the potential of others. These are valuable jobs and they deserve fair pay.