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?