A lesson on the economics of teacher pay

Note: This is first of a three-part series

A couple weeks back, the Courant ran an uplifting article about Clear Creek High School teacher and student volunteers building a Habitat for Humanity house for a CCHS teacher. The endeavor is a testimonial to the kindness and generosity of the volunteers. It reminds one of the pioneers’ barn-raising practice for their neighbors. So, kudos, a high-five, and much gratitude volunteers.

Their efforts, though, shine a light on an American irony in that in the Land of Opportunity a college-educated, licensed, dedicated professional is compensated so poorly that she qualifies for Habitat for Humanity housing. As the income chasm between the obscenely rich and the rest of America grows unabated, public employees who dedicate their lives to educate children, protect citizens, and administer tasks necessary to keep the wheels of the commonweal running, struggle to make ends meet and to afford living in their home communities.

In a May 17, 2018 article titled “Colorado teachers are making soap and working at the Amazon warehouse on the side, just to get by,” the Denver Post described a nearly identical situation in which a Denver Public Schools teacher, a single-mother raising three kids on her $45,000-a-year salary, works evenings and weekends processing packages for Amazon to keep them housed in their two-bedroom, $1245-per-month apartment.

“I’m fully paying down the electricity bill now,” the teacher told the Post. “I’m keeping up with the internet bill, which was getting shut off, like, once a month. I can buy my kids shoes that don’t have holes in them. Occasionally, we can do some fun things like go see a movie or go to the museum, which were things we weren’t able to do before.”

In the same edition as the home-raising, the Courant reported Clear Creek School District teachers are asking for a raise. Not a major one, mind you. Probably a less-than-inflation increase after their salaries were frozen last year despite the prices of goods at Safeway, a gallon of Trump at the pump*, and their rents and health-care costs continued to rise. One unseen hand of Adam Smith’s market economy: Inflation doesn’t stop for working stiffs.

In the 1970s, a new school of thought called the Chicago School of Economics gained prominence.

“The main tenets of the Chicago School,” says Investopedia, “are that free markets best allocate resources in an economy and that minimal or even no government intervention is best.” It is “libertarian and laissez-faire at its core, rejecting Keynesian notions of governments managing aggregate economic demand to promote growth.”

Its guru Milton Friedman preached corporations have one ethical responsibility: Maximizing investors’ profits. Consumer and employee be damned.

Since that thinking became corporate America’s financial North Star, coupled with the rise of Reaganism that invented the trickle-down-economics fable, the wealth disparity has exploded, the rich salaciously getting richer while the rest of America—middle and working classes who make it work—remaining stagnant, even regressing despite their ever-rising productivity.

According to the Colorado Center for Law and Policy, “Between 1948 and 1973, productivity in the U.S. increased by nearly 97 percent. Those gains were shared with workers as hourly compensation rose by 91.3 percent.

“Starting in the early 1970s, however, we see a very different trend. Nationally, productivity grew 72 percent between 1979 and 2016—enough to have allowed substantial leaps in living standards for most Americans if the gains had been broadly shared. But hourly compensation of the median worker only grew 14 percent and most of that growth occurred during the strong labor markets of the late 1990s—growth that has been all but erased for most workers since then.”

CCLP says Colorado mirrors the nation. “Gross state product per worker grew 68.2 percent between 1979 and 2016. Meanwhile, the median wage grew only 12.6 percent.”

That’s particularly true for teachers who are increasingly taking on more responsibilities for a dysfunctional society, even serving as body shields to protect their students, but being compensated less.

It’s a statement about America, a nation careening off the rails.

*The POTUS loves to take credit for all the “great” stuff that happens while he’s in office, so he should be credited for the not-so-good. Consider the price at the pump a barometer.

Next week: “America careening off the wheels”

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