“I’ve been ungodly blessed, you know, I just happened to be born at the right time in the right place. I tell people if I’d been born a few thousand years ago I would have been some animal’s lunch, because I can’t run very fast or jump very high. Or if I’d been born in Bangladesh or some place things would have been different for me. So what I’ve acquired has been, to an enormous degree, the product of a society that’s a huge capitalist society, and I was born into it at the right time, and I get these disproportionate material rewards in respect to my contribution. There’s all kinds of people who are just as good citizens as I am, they go over and serve in Iraq, they help in their communities, but I happen to be in something that just pays off like crazy and I get everything I want in life….”
There’s a certain arbitrariness to how our society values work, with many socially valuable occupations like care for our most vulnerable, our youngest and oldest, often getting short shrift. If that means children are less prepared for future education (not to mention life) than they ought to be, or that too many seniors going to a nursing home experience poor care, then Americans seem to have accepted it. We shouldn’t settle for so little.
One of the things America should be doing is investing more in Americans. One way to do that is to improve the value (both in pay and performance) of jobs that will stay here and have a big impact on our lives. Robert Kuttner last week wrote in the American Prospect about “Good Jobs for Americans Who Help Americans,” arguing that the federal government could
“have a national policy to make every human-service job a good job – one that pays a living wage with good benefits, and includes adequate training, professional status, and the prospect of advancement – a career rather than casual labor.
These, after all, are jobs caring for our parents, our children, and ourselves. Transforming all human-service work into good jobs would not merely replenish the supply of decent work. It would vastly improve the quality of care delivered to the elderly at home or in institutions; to young children in pre-kindergartens or day-care facilities; and to sick people whether in hospitals, hospices, outpatient settings, or their homes.”
Why do human service jobs make a lot of sense, compared to other jobs, to fund this way?
“Start with the fact that at least 60 percent of the funding for these jobs is ultimately public money. Government pays upward of half of all health-care costs through Medicare, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Veterans Administration, and the health insurance of public employees. Forty-five percent of nursing-home care is paid by Medicaid. Home care is heavily subsidized by public agencies. And in early childhood education and day care, while the affluent may have nannies or private day-care arrangements, Head Start is a public program, and state, local, and federal agencies subsidize day care through a variety of social-service programs.”
The wages Robert Kuttner proposes are around $24,000 to start – an improvement of about 25% to 35% over current wages – and would lead to related higher paying, higher skilled jobs with greater qualifications.
I won’t recap the entire article, you should read it, but Robert Kuttner doesn’t duck from the cost of about $150 billion a year. A component of that, an annual cost less than the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, should involve restoring progressive taxation. This is something that Warren Buffet also believes we need in our society. As Buffet pointed out in the quote above, he has been lucky to live in American society during his lifetime – a time where his skills could reap massive financial rewards. But lately he’s also benefited from regressive taxation that taxes his massive earnings at a rate lower than the more modest earnings of his employees. Here’s how Warren Buffet describes the situation:
“The taxation system has tilted toward the rich and away from the middle class in the last 10 years it’s dramatic and I don’t think it’s appreciated….
My total taxes…came to 17.7%. The average for the office was 32.9%. There wasn’t anybody in the office, from the receptionists on, that paid as low a tax rate, and I have no tax planning, I don’t have an accountant, I don’t have tax shelters.”
If we want a middle class oriented society, then we need a system that develops and maintains middle class wealth after years of supporting greater wealth for the wealthiest. Robert Kuttner’s human service wage proposal, supported by progressive taxation that makes the wealthy pay a greater share, may or may not be the way to go – but I suspect it’s in the right direction.