A small exercise in trying to spot where a political meme starts out. For this little story is making its way around the web and I am sure that it will become a standard part of the talking points over the minimum wage in the US. It's this idea that servants today are being paid less than servants were in 1910 America. It comes from this piece by David Cay Johnston:
Consider the family cook. Many family cooks now work at family restaurants and fast-food joints. This means that instead of having to meet a weekly payroll, families can hire a cook only as needed. A household cook typically earned $10 a week in 1910, century-old books on the etiquette of hiring servants show. That is $235 per week in today’s money, while the federal minimum wage for 40 hours comes to $290 a week. At first blush, that looks like a real raise of $55 a week, or nearly a 25 percent increase in pay. But in fact, the 2013 minimum-wage cook is much worse off than the 1910 cook. Here’s why: The 1910 cook earned tax-free pay, while 2013 cook pays 7.65 percent of his or her income in Social Security taxes as well as income taxes on more than a third of his pay, assuming full-time work every week of the year. For a single person, that’s about $29 of that $55 raise deducted for taxes. Unless he can walk to work, today’s outsourced family cook must cover commuting costs. A monthly transit pass costs $75 in Los Angeles, $95 in Atlanta and $112 in New York City, so bus fare alone runs $17 to $27 a week, eating up a third to almost half of the seeming increase in pay, making the apparent raise pretty much vanish. The 1910 cook got room and board, while the 2013 cook must provide his or her own living space and food.
There's an amusement at complaining that the cost of government has gone up there.
But given that these numbers are broadly correct what is the problem with the basic argument being made? That servants are now paid less well than their comparators 100 years ago?
For this certainly isn't something we would expect to see at all. Inequality now is no higher (at the very least it is no higher) than it was then and the median and mean wages have very definitely risen over that time span. So, given what we do know about wages in general of the past century how can we reconcile this?
The answer is of course that in looking at a cook Johnston is not looking at a fast food worker now. Yes, they both prepare food but a cook in 1910 was a senior and important part of the servant household. It was a position reached only after many years of work at a lower level. The cook was, along with the housekeeper and the butler, very much part of the management of the household and part of, to use a very strange phrase indeed, the servant aristocracy. You would also only find cooks in a grander house. To compare such to current day fast food workers is just being historically obtuse.
The correct comparison for a current day fast food worker would be to the sort of serving jobs that an untrained teenager might hope to get in 1910. And in the cooking side of things that would, in 1910 terms, be scullery maid. Who would, in London, have been paid perhaps £10 a year, or at the exchange rate of the time, some $50 a year.
And yes, I do think we can support the contention that today's fast food workers do make more than that $50 a year as adjusted for inflation.
But there we are, of such tricks are political memes created.