ALA-APA’s Living Wage Resolution in the context of a global economy, global famine, and U.S. economic decline

I am going to be try to be brief here and state my views on the issue of librarians’ salaries as simply as I can, with reference to things happening right now in ALA-APA and in the world as a whole.

At the recent ALA conference in Anaheim, ALA’s sister organization, the American Library Association Allied Professionals Association (which was formed to do things like start a librarians’ certification program and advocate for the profession in ways that ALA’s non-profit status doesn’t allow it to do) passed a living wage resolution for library workers. It sets a recommended minimum salary for librarians at $41,000 and change, to be adjusted annually for inflation, and a recommended minimum salary for library workers of $13 an hour. This is called a “living wage.”

The movement for a living wage, and the movement to improve librarians’ salaries, has its roots in the labor movement, which was successful in the first half of the 20th century in spreading the wealth of American society to its workers, so that the great majority of us could live an affluent lifestyle. As each generation of Americans has expected to do better economically than their parents, our expectations of a middle class standard of living has gone up, along with our definition of a “living wage” and our definition of the poverty level.

My generation is the first generation during this era that stands to do less well economically than our parents’ generation. This is because price inflation has outpaced wage inflation consistently since the 1970s (even during the boom years of the Clinton era, where the increases in wealth were mostly enjoyed by the wealthiest Americans).

Many blame this economic decline on globalization. I would agree with them, except that as someone who sees himself as a “citizen of the world” first and an American second, I have to say that I credit our economic decline to globalization, as wage disparities between countries have begun to become a little more fair due to global competition.

The United States has 5% of the world’s population, and is responsible for 25% of the world’s natural resource use.

According to the World Bank, the poverty level in a poor country is $1 per day. For a middle-income country, the poverty level is $2 per day. (These wages make food inflation a completely different matter for them than it is for us.)

For the United States, according to the department of Health and Human Services, the poverty level is considered to be about $30 a day. These dollar amounts reflect buying power. By comparison to world standards, an American at the poverty level is filthy rich. But it doesn’t feel like it, because it is human nature to compare ourselves to our neighbors.

Please welcome the rest of the world to your neighborhood.

If my math is right (not my best subject), according to ALA-APA, a living wage for a library worker is $104 per day, or $158 per day if that library worker is a librarian. By global standards, our living wage could be called a king’s living wage.

The wealth disparity between countries is decreasing, mostly because many developing economies have been developing very rapidly (China, India, and Brazil are good examples, but it’s true of many many countries). If their middle classes become more like ours in terms of income, then our living wage definition would be relatively in order and we should be justified in defining it in the way that we already do, right?

Wrong. The basic problem is not global inequality, which is indeed decreasing, but the limitation of the world’s resources. Rising demand for natural resources from developing countries as well as developed countries has roughly found the limit of what the world is able to supply. We are running out of oil, water, minerals, and space for trash. We have surpassed the planet’s ability to process our pollution and handle our C02 and methane.

Meanwhile, economic growth on all continents continues, and in many places is accelerating. Populations in the fastest growing economies are also growing fast.

Income translates into consumption, and consumption translates into resource use.

While the people of the U.S. are the world’s biggest consumers, more and more of that consumption has been fueled by personal debt. The U.S. government has the same credit card habit. And our trade deficit steadily increases. So we are the largest debtor nation in the world, and we owe much of our debt to countries that we are in the habit of thinking of as third world countries (China, India, Brazil, etc.)

This means that we are in the beginning phases of an economic decline and global rebalancing that will take generations to complete. The U.S. has already lost its place as the world’s superpower.

In my view there is justice in this course of events. For generations, we have lived like a nation of pigs, and we are just at the beginning of a long lesson in how to live in harmony with our neighbors and how to stay within the limits of the world’s natural resources.

Wages for U.S. librarians, at least in terms of our buying power, have been in decline since the 70s and are continuing to decline, along with wages for all U.S. workers. Because of global rebalancing of wages and because of our environmental footprint, this is how it should be. And there is nothing that can stop the U.S. decline. Libraries will begin to feel, and have begun to feel, external constraints on their budgets that no amount of lobbying can counter, because the economic decline affects every sector of society.

So my response to the living wage resolution is… I would like a plasma TV too, but what world do you think we’re living in?

11 comments on “ALA-APA’s Living Wage Resolution in the context of a global economy, global famine, and U.S. economic decline

  1. This is an engaging post, one that echoes an exchange reprinted in Library Juice Concentrate (“Critical Discussion of the Better Salaries Initiative”).

    In that piece, you initially granted that the disparity between communities _might_ be grounds for wage advocacy (though you were skeptical even of that. It seems your position has hardened.

    One of your measures in that piece was the BLS data on national salaries, which indicates that librarians don’t do poorly. It seems your position has hardened by appeal to global, rather than national, data.

    Is it fair to say that your position has hardened since then? the LJC piece prints no reply from you to the pieces by Hudson, Acosta and Luis — is this position, articulated here, in any way an outgrowth of that dialogue, or a reaffirmation of a long-held position?

    (Questions asked in respect, not antagonism!)

  2. Hi, David

    For readers who aren’t aware of what you’re referring to, here is the item that went into Library Juice Concentrate:

    The first part of my answer to your question is to note that I am writing in a somewhat different way here than I was during that email debate. There, I was laying out a careful argument in the context of a debate, conscious as I was writing of where someone might take an issue with this or that point. In that sense I was writing in a way that’s more like what you’re used to as an academic. The difference between then and now is partly that Library Juice is different now that it is a blog, but more because that other piece was conceived from the start as an attempt to have a debate with a careful shape and somewhat academic standards. What this is, here, is something a little different – more a matter of me getting something off my chest. While that’s not inappropriate in the context of the blogosphere, it’s also not inappropriate for you, academic that you are, to ask me to define my position more carefully and account for how it may have changed since November of 2003.

    So, how has my position changed? I think you’re correct in noting that I’m more concerned about the global context now. I think my earlier point that our pay is not so bad relative to other American professionals is still as valid as it was before, but isn’t what’s on my mind and doesn’t concern me as much now. I think the reason for that is just that I am thinking about the global economy and the U.S. economy a lot these days. Economic issues are on people’s minds more now. Though I was aware at the time that the U.S. economy may have been at the start of a long-term decline, I feel much more sure of it now, and more interested in the idea as well. These concerns and changes in the economic situation are part of the reason I’m not responding to the other authors in that email debate at this point. The other reason is that my intention right now is not to continue that earlier debate but to get something off my chest. But if you want to know how my position has changed… I don’t know if it has hardened exactly. I think what you’re noticing is just the effects of writing in a different context and in a different way, and the fact that I’m focused on different aspects because of what is happening in the world.

    (For readers who are wondering why I’m spending so much time on this answer, it’s because my friend David is a professor of writing studies at the university where I work, and my answer just happened to be within the scope of his interests.)

  3. Hi Rory,

    As usual, a thoughtful post, it would be great if you could clarify a few things for me.

    First, do you think that the relative success of the US Labor movement at mid-century was a *bad* thing? It is important to remember that during this period, (roughly ’46-’73) there was more wage equality than there is now in the neo-liberal era.

    The Living Wage movement is desperately needed because of the incredible inequality that exists in this country. Respectfully, I have to say that the Plasma TV is a poor analogy. A salary of 41,000 dollars does not allow for many luxury purchases (and I know you are using the example to compare the US wages to other countries, but still….)

    I *do* think there are problems with our consumption driven society but to use that as a way to critique the living wage movement gets things backwards. It is the new affluent class that drives consumption, not the workers at the bottom of the ladder.

    Too much can be made of globalization. American library workers (for now) are not competing with librarians in India and China. I agree that library budgets are being slashed but if there is the political will in this country, we can find funding for libraries. There isn’t any reason why the United States can’t become more like social democratic Europe. It will just take time.

    I guess I’m not as pessimistic; I think there are great opportunities in this era as well. Some of the great problems that we face can only be solved collectively and finally the American people are starting to see that. Who knows, perhaps we will see strong government investments in mass transit.

    Anyway, thanks again for the thoughtful post.

  4. Hi, Erik

    I think that the things we know now about our effect on the environment changes the way we should look at these things. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, we didn’t know these things. Now, I think it’s clear that a middle class lifestyle is not ecologically sustainable. This is true whether you’re talking about Americans or Europeans or the new middle class of China. And I think it’s even true if we’re able to make a radical shift toward renewable energy sources. Our level of consumption is so out of whack with what the planet can support that I think there is no way to reduce our carbon footprint sufficiently and continue to live an affluent lifestyle. Mass transit will not solve the problem.

    And when I say affluent, I am thinking of global standards, and I’m including the American working class. There’s almost nobody in this country that doesn’t live an affluent lifestyle by world standards. What tends to be called a “living wage” in this country is really a middle class wage.

    We tend to think of the modern, technological life as normal, when in history it is very new and is proving to be unsustainable. I’m not someone who would say we need to return to a neolithic way of life, but I do think that sustainability means living in a way that will be so different that few of us would tolerate the change at this point. We are too addicted to affluence. I think it’s a revolution that we will be forced into.

    In light of the ecological problems that we now face, I think the problems of social inequality have begun to become trivial.

    So yes, I’m pretty pessimistic.

  5. Oh, and in a two-income family where one both partners are making a “living wage” of $41,000, there’s plenty of money for a plasma TV. Even in some single people making that can afford one.

  6. There’s an element of something in your thinking (here and in the original post) looking for a justification, and so making small leaps that should be dissected.

    These do not constitute a coherent argument; they are raised questions.

    1. The easy one: $41,000 in Fargo/Moorhead is worth $47,000 in Minneapolis, because, among other things, housing is 40% more expensive in Minneapolis ( In San Diego, you’d need to earn $67,000. At least one of these three figures leaves a plasma out of the question. >wink<

    This echoes the old thread. And, at once, this supports your point (about what I would summarize as the arbitrariness of the living wage proposed). But because the number selected yields some wild disparities, that doesn’t mean that the effort isn’t worthwhile.

    2. When calculating our wages against our neighbors’, it’s important to factor in those things that we pay for that our neighbors don’t. Countries with greater commitment to education, to health care, and so on externalize those costs from salaries, but we pay for those things. (Even at UMD, we get statements of the value of the total compensation package, so that we will appreciate how much the employer is coughing in to the health care. But I know colleagues in Duluth who pay for their health insurance because their employer will not.)

    As we welcome the rest of the world to our neighborhood, we need to consider all our new neighbors, not just the ones whose wages are depressed by our economic practices, when measuring our success or loss.

    3. I’m not sure that a middle class lifestyle is environmentally unsustainable. Arguments could be made, in fact, that the higher cost of sustainability requires middle-class income to afford. At least, industrial agriculture seems to be key to feeding overpopulated parts of the world; organic agriculture would not yield enough food for everyone, as I understand it (cites U of MN propaganda about Norman Borlaug here).

    4. Finally, I don’t think that American professionals are losing wages due to globalization; or at least, if we say that it’s due to globalization, it’s effect is lining American pockets, not global pockets. US wages are not dropping uniformly. As Wiki tells me, Timothy Smeeding summed up the current trend of rising inequality on the pages of the Social Science Quarterly:[21]
    “Americans have the highest income inequality in the rich world and over the past 20-30 years Americans have also experienced the greatest increase in income inequality among rich nations. The more detailed the data we can use to observe this change, the more skewed the change appears to be… the majority of large gains are indeed at the top of the distribution.”

    Phrased differently, show me a decrease in income inequality in the US and I’ll swallow the bitter pill of decreasing income inequality in the world. But if my lost wages are lining Donald Trump’s pockets, instead of that of the maquiladoras, I’ll keep my living wage.

    5. There is an American tendency to presume that everyone is in the middle class. Americans who clearly are one medical catastrophe away from bankruptcy and whose lives are swallowed by the 2 jobs they work still identify, in the political process, as middle class when their education and earnings leave them far outside that category as traditionally understood. The end result is feeling greater solidarity with John McCain than with welfare moms, even though John McCain hasn’t pumped his own gas in years. That always amazed me.

    It seems that you are calling upon us to recognize that we have more in common with Donald Trump than with the maquiladoras, and to allow our salaries to fall in the maquiladora direction because of this. It feels wrong, somehow — as if it were a piece or an analog of the false consciousness that leads bowling leagues to vote McCain, often against their economic best interests.

    What do you think?

  7. Hi, David

    Thanks for engaging me in these questions in this way. I will have some things to say in response, but since I’m at work right now I won’t be getting to it until later. Just wanted to let you know I’m not blowing you off.

  8. Rory,

    Your argument doesn’t take into account that consumer goods are cheap in the U.S. One can buy a TV for less than the cost of one month’s rent.

    What makes a person poor on $30 a day in the U.S. is the cost of housing, transportation, child care, and health care. $900 a month doesn’t come close to covering those costs, not to mention food or education.

    I agree with you that it’s time for economic balancing, but I think it’s likely to come at the expense of lower income populations in the U.S. rather than those at the top.

  9. When calculating our wages against our neighbors’, it’s important to factor in those things that we pay for that our neighbors don’t. Countries with greater commitment to education, to health care, and so on externalize those costs from salaries, but we pay for those things.

    Yes, our neighbors don’t require students from less affluent backgrounds to take out onerous loans to finance their education, and more often then not, mortgage their future. Most librarian salaries, especially at the entry-level, are not adequate enough to pay back student loans in a timely manner. What I mean by a timely manner is about 10 years. Most librarians I know with student loans are not going to be able to pay their debts within that time-frame (and some of them earn a bit more than 41k and live modestly); it is more like 20-30 years, or in some cases, never. For those who never pay finish paying, after 30 years, the remainder with compounded interest is taxed as income right around the time one is ready to retire. What further compounds the problem is that there are very few opportunities for librarians to have part of their debt repaid by their employer, etc.

    In general, the costs of education are spiraling out of control, making many traditionally lower paying professions out of reach for those who would rather teach, then say, work as a consultant for some corporation.

  10. oops:
    Yes, our neighbors don’t require students from less affluent backgrounds to take out onerous loans to finance their education, and more often than not, mortgage their future.

  11. In my post, I wove together two separate problems – the problem of sustainability and the problem of global inequality. As I think this through, I am finding that in light of environmental catastrophe, I think problems of inequality are a matter of creating a comfortable death-bed. Is it important to make a comfortable death-bed in a case of terminal illness? Yes indeed. But if you don’t know you are going to die, the importance of comfort when you rehabilitate is not of the same level of significance as finding the cure. So I simply don’t have much of a response to the discussion about why someone making $30 a day is poor in the United States. I think it’s not important compared to the matter of finding a way to have a future (which unlike recovering from an illness, requires some form of action rather than rest).

    That said, I can respond to some of that discussion by repeating that global inequality is more serious and severe than inequality at home; that what we consider poverty is wealth in the global context. When it comes to health care, housing, food, transportation, and education, the real reason that $30 a day is poor is because we have very high standards, and we have very high standards because we are so affluent as a nation. If we were more affluent still, we would define the poverty level even higher. We would define “necessary for a decent life” even higher. This is why the global poverty rate for a middle income country is $2 a day – not because things there are fifteen times cheaper.

    The connection to the environmental problem is that the environment can’t support the level of affluence of the American working class.

    To respond to David’s enumerated points the best I can:

    I am not sure what point you are trying to make in item one. Yes, the cost of living differs in different places (as does the expected standard of living). If it’s merely to point out that in NYC that $41,000 is not a lot and therefore maybe a reasonable “living wage,” I can just return to the fact that the argument I am making is not really affected by a marginal difference. I am saying that even a working class level of consumption is unsustainable, and that it represents great affluence by world standards.

    To respond to the second item… Again, I would say that your point is marginal and my argument is not affected by the margins, and also consumption is consumption. Whether you count expenses on education as before or after taxes, it is still an expense. Want to reduce the effective minimum salary by $10,000 a year to cover national education costs (a too-high number probably, but I’m comfortable using it)? My argument is the same – we are too rich.

    As to your third point, I think this is where there is room for some very interesting discussion, between an Al Gore type optimist who believes that society can be high-consumption and yet be made sustainable through new technologies, and a permaculture pessimist who believes that nothing but a very different way of living, and probably a much smaller population, can be sustainable in the very long term. I don’t have much faith in technological solutions, because I think they tend to have costs to the environment that are not forseen, especially if implemented on a large enough scale, and also because they tend to address only certain problems, i.e. where are we going to get our energy? Meanwhile, other problems are killing us at the same time. Huge dedications of land use for wind and solar farms may slow global warming but will accelerate rather than reverse the loss of biodiversity, which is the other huge problem. Also, it seems practically impossible to me to create the kinds of technological changes that would be needed fast enough to roll back global warming, as opposed to merely slowing its acceleration. I am really a pessimist about the environment. I really do think that the kind of affluence that everybody wants for themselves and that working class Americans already have is not ecologically sustainable, and I really do think that in terms of global warming, it is too late to solve the problem and what is needed is to find ways of living with it.

    In response to your item 4, this is one where I think we disagree on the economics without either of us having the expertise in economics to fully support what we are saying, but I will say that I think part of the key misunderstanding here is that wealth does not equal consumption. The wealthiest 2% of Americans may own 80% of the wealth, but that wealth is not cash that gets spent (resources used) but mostly capital and debt obligations, which don’t represent their consumption so much as other people’s. I do agree with you that as the real income of middle class Americans has gone down, the real income of the wealthiest Americans has been going way up. I do not agree with you that the income of Maquiladoras and their global equivalents have not gone up – it has. Which increase in income represents the most money, I really don’t know. I do know that there are a lot more global factory workers with incomes going up than there are superrich capitalists with incomes going up. I would say that it is really not obvious that more money has been going to the top end, just because the income advances of that small group are so great. I really don’t know.

    Item number 5: I consider class status and income separately. To me, “middle class” is roughly equivalent to “salaried professional or managerial.” This is in accordance with a Marxist conception of class, as well as, roughly, with U.S. tax law’s distinction between exempt and non-exempt employees. A salaried professional (a librarian for example) is middle class because he’s highly educated and has a high degree of control of his own work activities. A working class wage earner, who is usually less educated and has work activities that are tightly defined and usually repetitious, might make more money than middle class salaried professional. The advantage that the lower-payed middle class worker has is that because of being more educated he can participate more effectively in public life, and his work life is likely to be more fulfilling because it is more self-defined. It may also be safer and less destructive to the body. That’s my rough idea of the difference between class and income.

    But it’s hard to talk about income without talking about class, because the two are the same thing in most people’s minds.

    You seem interested emphasizing the distinction between the average income earner and the upper income earner, saying that a lower-income person who considers himself middle class is in a completely different situation than an upper-income middle class person, and is living in an insecure situation.

    The insecurity, as I see it, is based on something terrible to contemplate: the loss of affluence. Most of the middle class and working class in America are indeed in an insecure situation and in danger of losing their affluence. I don’t want to lose MY affluence either – make no mistake. But I think it’s clear that our affluence is unsustainable, so making a moral issue out of keeping it seems unsupportable to me, regardless of inequality.

    I am casting a vote against my own personal interest here, and I’m consciously aware of it. Because of the ecological fix we’re all in, our individual economic interests are at odds with the future of society.

    But does this imply a course of action that would support the capitalist class? No, I don’t think it does. If I have a hope for any kind of social action being the answer, it would be to switch to a mode of social organization in which local communities are mostly self-sustaining. This involves letting the capitalist class go extinct. So although what I’m saying doesn’t involve worker solidarity against the capitalist class, it does not involve any alignment with the capitalist class either. It involves solidarity with our own future generations and with nature. In certain part of the analysis it also involves solidarity with the world’s real working class, which does not live in the U.S. and is not affluent like we are, as part of recognizing our own affluence.

    I’ve heard this kind of environmentalism referred to as the new secular religion. Since it involves a mode of thinking that can invoke apocalyptic scenarios, and since it involves a sacrifice of self-interest for a higher moral good, there is a good reason to say this. However, it is based on science rather than on myth or scripture. It is an attempt to guide our progress into the future on rational, responsible grounds rather than on the basis of our own individual desires. I find it too difficult to live up to and I think almost everyone else would, too, so I’m pessimistic. But I think it’s where the truth lies, and that it has implications for all areas of policy and decisionmaking.

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