A Plea For Temperance

If you know anybody who’s for living wage, against living wage, interested in any way, please send this link on to them. Even if you disagree with me – post a scathing comment, then send people a link saying “look what an idiot this guy is!” Free exchange of ideas never hurt anyone, right?

EDIT: Yeah, yeah – I forgot FICA. I still stand by my proposal, though the tangential tax issue is not quite as simple as I was thinking. Looking into some specific numbers now.

The lot of a graduate student is not easy. Buried in the halls of academia, it can be very easy to have blinders on and let events in the real world pass by unnoticed. So it was that when my friend called me around noon on Friday to come to the Living Wage rally at Madison Hall, I was unfortunately underinformed about the issues at hand. However, I had heard about the movement, such as it is, and I am in support of both living and being paid. So I felt that my support for being paid enough to live should be a pretty straightforward affair. I went to the rally, despite my general misgivings about rallies: particularly having been an undergrad here and seeing the debacle that was the UVA anti-Iraq war protests.When I got there, I was shocked – students inside, exercising non-violent protest against the administration’s refusal to pay people what they needed, were being denied food, and books! How could the administration be so cruel? After all, these students simply object to people being paid five bucks an… err, I mean $9.37 an hour! Well, even if UVA’s minimum wage of $9.37 is better than the pathetic federally-mandated one of $5.15,it’s still not enough to live in… now hold on. Doing math in my head, yes, hmm – it seems like my stipend is only slightly more than the equivalent of working full-time at UVA’s minimum wage. And I’m not allowed to have other income! Worse still, I know that I’m privileged – my compatriots in humanities have much lower stipends, and yet they manage to live, apparently. What was I missing… aha! Of course! Most of us don’t have kids to feed. (Also, we’re getting our tuition payed for and we’re getting a lot of value added, but none of that helps us eat right now, so we’ll ignore that for the moment.)

Now before I go on, I should state categorically – I believe that the administration was fully within their legal rights to deny the students whatever they wished, after all, they were not prisoners, they were on University property, and they were at least mildly disruptive to productivity. However, I think that the administration was wrong, both ethically and in terms of PR, to make this attempt to “smoke out” people who disagree with them. On the other hand, I am increasingly of the opinion that the Living Wage Campaign itself takes an entirely too simple view of the real issues, and that their cause is muddled by confusing irrelevancies. Further, just as a punishment should fit a crime, I’m a firm believer that the protest should fit the cause. Thus, I opposed the anti-war “walk out” (they were, after all, protesting war, not class), and I feel that a sit-in was more unnecessarily disruptive and less fitting than, say, a hunger strike. Worse still, the rally to support the sitters-in should have been held elsewhere so as not to compound the disruption and to lend their cause more credence – rallying on the Lawn, and encouraging people to, individually, attempt to feed the students inside seemed more appropriate. I have quite a handful of other complaints about the Living wage Campaign itself, but I’m going to talk ideas, and not politics.

The crux of the matter is twofold: first, does the university have a ethical obligation to pay people enough so that they can support themselves and their family if they work full time; and second, what’s the right level of compensation? The former is a question that we really cannot answer analytically without getting into a great deal of philosophy and economics. I find that interesting, but I’m not really qualified, and in any case it would probably be little more than an intellectual exercise. Let’s talk about the second question – what is a livable wage?The Living Wage Campaign has made their line clear — $10.72/hour is the minimum livable wage. Now, I like esoteric numbers as much as the next guy (in all likelihood more than the next guy) but $10.72 seems awfully specific. Going on to Living Wage’s website (http://uvalivingwage.net), I found a “report” which, while containing outdated information about the UVA minimum wage, does include the source of their figure of $10.71. It is based upon the Economic Policy Institute’s basic family budget, adjusted for Charlottesville values. Their table, which summarizes EPI numbers is as follows:

Need Monthly Cost Hourly Cost
Taxes $349 $1.00
Other necessities $359 $1.03
Transportation $375 $1.08
Health care* $401 $1.16
Food $587 $1.69
Housing $744 $2.15
Childcare $904 $2.61
Subtotal $3,716 $10.72

Looking at this table, something jumped out at me – by far the largest budgetary sink was childcare. In fact, according to these numbers, for single people, or even two-income couples without children, UVA’s hourly wage even has some amount of comfort room.

But according to this model, what’s “comfortable” for a childless employee is still living pretty close to the edge for parents. Well, let’s look at where all that money is going – to taking care of the kids. After all, there are doctor’s visits, diapers, and of course we can’t leave them at home alone while both parents are out trying their damnedest to make this subsistence living work out. That and more come to a full $900+/month in the EPI model. What if we could make it cheaper? After all, it would be great if these parents who are just working to support their families could have some access to quality, low-cost childcare.

And so, I propose this — instead of screaming at an administration which may or may not have limited powers with regard to wage, and instead of steadfastly refusing to pour more money into personnel across the board, why don’t we look into the creation University-run day care and after-school programs for the children of wage employees? By giving free or cheap access to top-quality child care, the University could help those with the most need at the lowest end of the University’s economic spectrum without unnecessarily raising the salaries of those who can more easily live at those income levels. Personally, I spent a good part of my early childhood in day care and after-school programs provided by my parents’ employer, and it was a safe and educational environment for me to spend my time while my parents were still at work. The University has phenomenal access to experts in child psychology, child care, education, and more – surely it could create such a quality environment for the children of wage employees. This idea has the benefits of economy for the University; better worker focus, loyalty, and availability; and on top of all that, it has the benefit of being the right thing to do, from a humanitarian perspective.

So, please – to all parties involved, I would ask that you settle this fiasco thusly: have the administration commission a time-limited feasibility study of the best way to provide better child care benefits to employees, and Living Wage and their related protesters take this study as a good faith effort on the University’s part to help look out for those who need it. Remember, compromise is not weakness, and sometimes you can solve your problem without getting your way.