A Rant About Wages for the Working Poor

Jobs are scarce everywhere you go, and we are all thankful for whatever we can earn right now. But it’s a sad commentary on America’s standard of living, when so many of the working poor I’ve talked to consider Satan’s pay rate to be pretty good ($11.50/hr).

I’m not sure why, because when I look back at the the last 20 years of my working life, I see that in real wages I’m actually earning way less than I was back in the late ’80s.

In 1988, I worked at a mannequin factory, painting faces in the art department. I was paid $8.00/hr. Then, in 1989 – 1991, I made roughly $16.00/hr putting myself through college while working for an insurance company. I thought my standard of living would only go up from there, but when I finally got my degree in ’92, jobs were scarce. So I became a coffee barista and waited tables, and made around $9.00/hr plus tips. I was barely  able to survive on that in San Francisco, but I did.

Seventeen years later, this job is paying me slightly over what I made in ’92, yet that wage is supposed to be considered good? How can that be? Certainly I’m not paying the same for food, fuel, etc., that I was back then. I’m just banking on the overtime that’s supposed to kick in this week after Black Friday, which is why I took this gig.

As the cost of living climbs, real wages keep sinking for those at the bottom. I’m so outraged that there is such a ridiculous, embarrasing disparity in this country between the rich and working poor (which, if you’re not already, you could be, very easily). Meanwhile, the Wall Street billionaires keep making obscene profits, and taking our tax money to bail their companies out. Can’t you hear them laughing?

22 thoughts on “A Rant About Wages for the Working Poor”

  1. THANK YOU RENE! I was going to post a similar “rant” on my blog but I feel like we’ve been spinning our wheels so much lately that it wasn’t even worth it. I’m working for $8/hr for “the man” right now and can’t even begin to think how single folks live off this for years. Thankfully I have Duncan backing me up otherwise we’d be screwed!

    • Aw, you’re welcome ToTo. In the 1.5 years since I’ve written this post I can’t say things have gotten any better wage-wise, other than the fact that I quit working for Satan and am making similar pay doing what I love from the comfort of my home instead of on a factory floor.

      Email me sometime and we can commiserate! Or better yet I’ll host a cocktail hour and we can whine with a glass o’ wine! 😉

  2. My wages have increased from my first job (minimum wage) of $3 an hour to my first teaching job of 10K a year and finally to a decent teaching wage before I quit.

  3. 1. In terms of material goods, the “standard” is off the charts. In terms of the overall happiness of people, not so much. Reaction starting in (I desperately hope) in 3….2…..1

    2. Probably true, but of course the current American standard of living is not sustainable. It is helping to kill the planet. (And yes, I know the Chinese have a lot to answer for carbon-wise) But how do you tell that to the people in all those other countries who have spent their lives with their noses pressed up against our window.

    My first real job was as a sign painter’s apprentice in 1976 for ten cents over the minimum wage of $1.40/hr- $1.50. My boss told me that if I stayed in the trade that the sky was the limit. I could easily end up earning over $5 an hour. Wow, I thought, with visions of dollar signs dancing in my head, that would be amazing. By the time I moved on five years later, I was happily making $5.50/hr. The raises mostly came a dime at a time, but a couple of times it was a whole quarter. Plus lunch every day. And an education in excellence and doing it right that has made possible everything I’ve done since.

    Great comment, Rob Hopkin!

    • So, we see how Susan’s minimum wage was $1.40 an hour in 1976. When I started working my first job at the mall in 1985, it was $3.30 I believe.

      The minimum wage more than doubled in the decade between ’76 and ’86, but today, it’s stuck at $6.50/hr in Colorado, less in other states. I’m pretty innumerate, but even to me, something doesn’t seem right with the math here….

  4. what happened to your blog…it use to be fun and uplifting to read. all the different places you went and people you met…it’s like a whole new blog now.

    • As you can read, René is obviously a little preoccupied with her choice to work for the man again. Hopefully once the wheels are rolling again, we’ll have a bit more excitement to share!

      • Well, it looks to me like the emphasis is simply on the “work” part of the title for the time being.

        I’m really appreciating her insights into what work life is like for so many people.

  5. The 80s a heady time,more pay, less taxes… it seemed to work, the economy was great. along came unfunded govt mandates in the 90s and no oversight on the tech industry… big party… bigger hangover. remember the feeling of a new car? why? because unless you pay cash you will end up with big payments on a load of junk. The 90s seemed awesome until now. we are still paying for that load of junk

  6. 1 – Do you think the standard of living has declined in America in the last 30 years………ABSOLUTELY!!!!….And it coutinuously to decline. But if you throw the dice and make it to the other side then your money will work for you. Till greed corrupts your investments and before you know it a million goes up in smoke! Like George Bush says: Work Hard!!! lmao.

  7. I sure do agree with your post. I think what makes it seem so horrible is the fact that, as you say, the extremely wealthy just get wealthier, while more and more people who were doing “ok” are falling nearly out of control. The thing that amazes me is that most folks just go along and support those companies whose executives and stockholders are making obscene amounts of money – I know we all need to buy fuel, but at $.10, .20, or more a gallon from Exxon? And don’t even let me get started on the crap that we have to buy from China or do without. Someone has gotten very rich by moving their manufacturing overseas and putting so many Americans out of decent-paying jobs.

  8. $8 at your first job and in 1988?! Wow, that’s was a lot. When I started working in 1994, I only made $4.25. I was ecstatic about $5/hr when I worked in machine shop not long after that. For years, as a waitress I made $2.13/hr +tips.

    Do I think the standard of living has declined? Not from where I am sitting. I can only speak of my personal experience. There was no one holding me back. I worked crazy hours for little to no pay to get experience and a career. It was a bit like an apprenticeship. It was all there for the taking. I just had to want it, find it, and commit myself. Its just that later on, after I had it, I realized I didn’t want it so much.

    When you think about the cost of living in Fernley, $12 ain’t too bad. $1900 or so per person a month. Rent near $400 a month. etc. It could be a lot worse…

    • Jen, your rent is for an RV spot with hookups and electricity. People who live in stick houses here pay upwards of $900 a month and more, typically in the $1100k range (we get the local paper here and I’ve been looking at rents just out of curiosity). For us as RVers, sure, rent is cheap. But most people don’t live like us.

      You’ve worked your butt off, I agree, and for very little. It just doesn’t make sense to me that you were paid that wage in a time when America was the most prosperous.

      • I honestly had not looked at the local real estate myself. I was just going by what people at work had told me. Are you talking about apartments or houses? Its hard to believe that they pay the same here for an apartment that folks in Orlando, FL do. One bedrooms aren’t even that much in Orlando.

  9. Wow, that’s an eye opener Renee. I had no idea the disparity in salaries and cost of living in America these days.

    You know, my father was born in 1930, lived through the years of depravation in England throughout WWII and for many years following until things improved economically for the U.K. in the mid 60’s. He took a big chance and immigrated to California, in what he always referred to as the greatest country in the world in 1967.

    It was the typical American story of arriving with nothing, not even much of an education except a basic engineering apprenticeship from his teens and early twenty’s. He started out sweeping the metal shavings off the shop floor to earn a few bucks and then worked hard, went to night school to enhance is engineering skills and finished up Senior VP for a large aerospace company in California when he retired in 1990 with all the usual stocks, shares, funds etc and sitting very comfortable indeed.

    To hear my parent’s talk of how America was in the 60’s, they thought they had died and gone to heaven. Truly the land of opportunity and it was all about what you could do, how hard you wanted to work and building, building, building to live the American dream. Dad is a patriot through and through, America has been good to him, and it’s rewarded his hard work and patience with a good, dignified retirement and he knows it.

    As you guys know, I have not lived in America since I was 18 and it’s interesting that he concedes I am probably no worse off financially or otherwise by not living in America. In fact he would go a step further and say that his son is probably better off as a whole for not living and working in America. I know the value of a dollar and the average hourly wage is part and parcel of quality of life which is why I bring up the following question.

    Does that mean the average American’s standard of living has declined or does it mean that a lot of other countries have risen to match or even exceed it?

    I’d be interested to hear other people’s/readers opinions.

    1 – Do you think the standard of living has declined in America in the last 30 years or
    2 – It’s more a case of other countries have increased their standard of living
    3 – Or both?

    Maybe you could do a poll in the context of the RV’ing lifestyle. I know it’s a full time RV blog but the economy etc has been a subject you have covered more than once the last few weeks.

    • Awesome, thoughtful comment Rob. Your Dad has every reason to be proud and patriotic, he achieved The Dream that is all so many people here want to see happen for them. My own parents share a similar story, rising from poverty through hard work, on a single income, raising 5 kids to boot.

      I’ve heard in so many places that the current generations are the first in history who will not do as well as their parents did, and I believe it wholeheartedly. Sad, but true, based on what I’ve seen so far working for Satan.

      Yes, I definitely think the standard of living has declined. We all work so much harder here, and get so much less. And that’s no secret; America no longer ranks as high as it once did on the standard of living charts compared to other countries around the world.

      In my embarassingly limited knowledge of foreign affairs (such an American thing…for shame!) I do think other countries have increased their standard of living. The lack of affordable health care here is just one example.


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