Monday’s Mtg at NEW LOCATION: Why Are So Many Rhetorically-Valued Jobs So Low-Paying?

This will be a meeting of transitions for Civilized Conversation. We start a new life at a new location – The Village Café, 10415-B Mission San Diego Road. (Coco’s closed suddenly, as have dozens of their locations around the country.) Also, this will be Zelekha’s last CivCon meeting! She’s off to NYC to seek her fortune and/or get involved in some of the issues that we just sit around talking about. Good luck, Z. Thanks for the venue, Filip.

It is Z.’s topic idea on Monday, too. We have discussed the problem of low wages in the United States several times. See here, for example. We’ll do so again on May 18, when we ponder the effects technological change might have on the future world of work (I’m calling it our robots meeting).

Zelekha wants us to focus Monday on a specific type of poorly-paid work and its seeming paradox. Why do so many of our society’s most rhetorically-valued jobs pay so little? For example, a lot of jobs that involve taking care of the sick or the very old or the very young pay dirt wages: Home health care workers, nursing home staff, day care center and in-home child care workers. (Of course, some such jobs pay better, like police officer, firefighter, and soldier.  But, why)  Some other jobs may not exactly be respected, but we all recognize their importance to the public good: Food handlers, cyber security types, security guards, etc., and some of them certainly pay poorly. Why is this, Zelekha asks?

The usual answers get at a part of the truth, in my opinion, but are not the whole answer. Based on my experience, conservatives tend to cite these three factors:

  1. Low productivity: Low wage jobs – even some we admire – add little monetary value to an employer so they pay little;
  2. Supply and demand: Wage rates are determined by employers’ demand for labor and the number of qualified applicants, and by nothing more; and
  3. Immigration: Allowing in so many low-skill immigrants puts downward pressure on wages in those jobs. (not all conservatives cite immigration)

Liberals, IMO, tend to cite these three:

  1. Power disparities: Many low-wage workers are worth more than they get paid but lack the bargaining power to demand what they deserve; and
  2. Power similarities: Low-wage workers often are employed by other people of modest means, especially in child and elder care;
  3. Social value:  there is a lot of social value-added in rhetorically-high-valued jobs which is not captured by labor markets, and it should be (or at least, government should compensate the workers for that social benefit if businesse can’t/won’t).

I’m no expert, but I know a bit about such things, especially the ways that people over simplify the above arguments. So, I will open with a brief overview of these points-of-view. Then, the usual: We’ll have a nice 2-hour debate and then trash the place. (Kidding, Filip.)


  1. Which jobs are “rhetorically-valued but low-paid?” Jobs helping the elderly or children? Jobs protecting the public? Dangerous/unpleasant but someone’s got to do them jobs? What do these jobs pay? Do some pay reasonably well (e.g., police/firefighters)?
  2. In general, what factors determine how well jobs pay? In theory? In real life? Are the factors different for the low-wage jobs we’re talking about here?
  3. Do some of these jobs have social value beyond their market value? How do we know that and who should determine the value-added?
  4. What do governments in the USA currently do to assist low-paid workers; e.g., minimum wage, earned income tax credit?
  5. Could/should more be done to either (a) raise these wages or (2) support these people’s incomes? In general v. sector-specific? Pros v. cons.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (I went a little crazy. So prioritize.)

In general –

Specific jobs that we rhetorically value –

Causes and Solutions –

Solutions (?)

Next Week: How Did the Founding Fathers Envision Government’s Powers?  (Bruce’s idea)


3 responses

  1. If I don’t make it Monday night, I hope teaching is NOT held out an an example of low-paying, highly-praised work. Currently, SD County teachers max out at around $80 per hour (contact hours, not prep hours). Additionally, Rolls-Royce benefits not seen very often anymore, and many teachers have a guaranteed for life retirement package with annual income near the top of their wage-earning years. I’ll try to make it, though.

    1. Good pt. It does vary by state, however.

  2. I think computing a per hour rate is not a valid standard of comparison. If you were to do that, college professors might earn a tremendous salary.
    Have you looked at salaries in comparison with professions like law, medicine, etc.?
    After 45 years of teaching (!) my mother received maybe 80% of her salary (having changed states, of course, only about 30 years were credited–for which she had to pay!)
    Look at the retirement packages of SD City employees! Get some solid comparative data!

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