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The 50-100 Pay Gap

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Many American families are mortgaging their futures to pay for the present.

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The first in his family to go to college, Ryan Sheade was raised by a single white mother who worked hard to open up a better future for him. 

With just a high school diploma under her belt, she worked as a receptionist throughout the 1980s and then started selling electronic parts. 

Co-published by Fast Company

Together, mother and son bounced from one living situation to the next. Ryan remembers frequenting “really terrible apartments with shag carpet and roaches” and, as a child, he was never allowed to get the popsicles at the grocery store. His grandma, a “Depression baby,” always took Ryan to garage and yard sales where they might capitalize on good deals. But he grew up hearing, “We can’t afford that. We can’t afford that. We can’t afford that.”

His wife Erica was also a latchkey kid, but she grew up in considerably more comfortable circumstances. Born into a Black family, Erica was never privy to conversations about financial challenges as a child: Discussing money in her home was taboo. Erica’s parents managed to put Erica and her sisters through private schools, and while they didn’t take lavish vacations, she was nestled in an upper middle class family, surrounded by friends who lived in similar households with parents who had similar jobs. “We always had what we needed,” she remembers.

The contrast in their upbringings is a source of sitcom humor. “We joke a lot that I grew up loving ‘The Cosby Show,’ and I married a Huxtable, and Erica grew up loving ‘Roseanne,’ but she married a Conner,” says Ryan of his wife.

Ryan, who exhibits a charming, self-deprecating sense of humor, refers to the popular sitcoms to emphasize that he, technically, married “up.” While the duo grew up in contrasting universes—in terms of race, class and neighborhood—they bonded over their desire to give back to the community and help those who are less fortunate. 

The couple are both social workers in Scottsdale, Arizona, living the dream of being their own bosses in a practice that assists clients struggling with mental health and decades of trauma. The irony is that they themselves find it increasingly hard to earn enough to build a financially secure life for themselves and their three children. 

Erica’s mother still doesn’t talk much about finances, but when she later became an attorney, she made more than double what she initially made as a social worker — even with her own, independent social work business. Erica recently found out that her mother’s first job in social work provided annual wages of $15,000 in 1984, which is equivalent to $38,000 today. Only with repeated requests for a raise did she reach $17,500 per year in 1986 — about $43,000 today. 

More than 20 years later, Erica earned $45,000 in her first social work role — just $2,000 more than her mother’s inflation-adjusted salary of $43,000 during Erica’s childhood. Her mother’s earnings coupled with her father’s military pension provided enough for a comfortable middle class life. Erica has fought to sustain that class status now as a woman with a family of her own but is determined to secure a better life for her children. Despite co-owning a private practice (considered a great feat by many in the field), her net worth has not yet eclipsed that of her parents. 


While the duo grew up in contrasting universes they bonded over their desire to give back to the community and help those who are less fortunate.


Social mobility is key to the American dream, especially the ambition to rise up from poverty and earn more than your parents. But as many economists have noted, that dream has faded in recent decades, with only half of those born in 1984 earning more than their parents at age 30, compared to 92% of those born in 1940. That stunning statistic reflects a larger income inequality crisis in the country. 

One extra burden carried by Erica that her mother didn’t have to worry about is a mountain of student loan debt, which has been skyrocketing across the board and weighs particularly hard on underpaid social workers. According to a 2020 survey conducted by the Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at George Washington University, the average educational debt among 2019 MSW (Master’s of Social Work) graduates was $66,000—while the average starting salary stood at $47,000 that year. 

The survey also found that social work-related educational debt was “substantially higher” for Black social workers, who took on an average of $92,000 in loans — vs. $57,000 for white social workers. 

As a Black woman from a “solidly middle class” background, Erica has endured racial disparities throughout her career. One incident came after her university lost its accreditation for the school’s social work program in 2004. Erica, then a 23-year-old college student, sat down with her adviser to figure out her next steps. That day, the woman told her, “What’s the point? People like you never graduate anyways.” 

Erica says, “It was as if she had said, ‘You don’t deserve a seat at this table.’”

Despite such racial barriers and rising debt, both Ryan and Erica successfully made it through their schooling. Erica’s parents paid for her undergraduate education, but she took out loans for graduate school; Ryan, as the first in his family to go to college, took out loans for both undergrad and graduate school. In their first social work jobs post-grad, Ryan made $40,000 and Erica made $45,000. 

By the time they got married, the couple’s student loan debt was in the six figures, and they worked at low-paying starting jobs that required master’s degrees and costly licenses. Erica was still in graduate school when they had their first child, so they took out additional loans to offset family costs. The financial situation was stark enough that Erica could not afford to take maternity leave prior to having her first and second children; in both cases, she was at work when she began having contractions. 

The Sheades’ expenses at the time were 120% of their income. They were paying $1,800 a month for daycare and $1,200 a month for housing, on top of groceries, formula and diapers. Erica still remembers the daily stress at the grocery store as she budgeted how many items she could put on each credit card.

“I had to think, ‘If I go to the grocery store this week, do I know what’s on sale? And how can I stretch that for a couple of meals?‘” she said.

The couple still pays more than $500 per month in student loans.

“I cannot tell you how many times I thought to myself, ‘What if one of us would just go be a realtor, or if one of us would just go into finance because we have the intellect to do it,’” Ryan said. “But we don’t have the heart to.” 

Where Are the Unions?

Historically, Arizona has been a solidly red state with what the National Association of Social Workers has called an “overwhelming conservative ideology.” With the exception of Bill Clinton’s 1996 win, the state voted for Republican presidential candidates in every election from 1952 up until 2020, when Joe Biden took the state by a 0.3% margin. Today, however, Arizona is widely classified as a “purple” state that continues to pivot to the left: both of its senators are Democrats, as well as five of its nine U.S. congressional representatives. And while the state is 54% white, Arizona’s Latino population is ballooning. Since 2000, the demographic group has grown from 25% to 32%, and although the Latino community is not an ideological monolith, its growth has helped cement the state’s Democratic voter base.


By the time they got married, the couple’s student loan debt was in the six figures, and they worked at low-paying starting jobs that required master’s degrees and costly licenses.


But the decades-long grip of the Republican Party and its legislative choices can still be felt by Arizona’s middle-class workers like Erica and Ryan down to its poorest citizens. Of the more than 7 million people in the state, 40% live on a household income of less than $50,000, according to the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. Perhaps more concerning, 13.6% of people under 65 do not have health insurance, and 13.5% of Arizona residents live below the poverty line — that’s compared to 10.5% living in poverty nationwide in 2019. 

Though they’re well above the poverty line, the average social worker in the state still falls neatly into the 40% of Arizonans making less than $50,000 annually. Despite the essential community health services they perform, their wages remain stagnant, and a key component in this regional wage slump is the difficulty in unionization. 

Arizona was ranked the 22nd best state to work in, according to anti-poverty nonprofit Oxfam, scoring well in wage policies and worker protections. But it ranked a dismal 39th out of 50 in the right to organize. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.3% of wage and salary workers in Arizona in 2020 were unionized, down nearly half a percentage point from the previous year. Arizona’s union rates are also lower than nationwide rates (which rose from 10.2% in 2019 to 10.8% in 2020), and have hovered below the national average for over 30 years. 

Arizona is not only an at-will state, meaning an employee can be terminated without cause or notice in the absence of a written contract, but is also a right-to-work state, allowing employees to abstain from joining an organized workplace or union as desired. Right-to-work laws are often framed as a signal for worker prosperity and the freedom to choose, but studies have shown that workers in right-to-work states actually make less than those without right-to-work laws. Organizing is increasingly difficult for workers in Arizona, leading to less collective bargaining power when fighting against income inequality on a mass scale.

The state has a long history of introducing anti-union legislation or blocking legislation that would improve wages for Arizonans. In 2012, Republican lawmakers including former state Sen. Rick Murphy introduced four anti-union bills, one of which aimed to outlaw collective bargaining for government workers.

At the time, Murphy publicly expressed his disdain for union workers to NPR, saying, “It seems as though those employees or at least the unions that represent them don’t care what the burden is on the taxpayer as long as they get theirs.” 

The bills were supported by Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian conservative advocacy group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, and were co-written by the Goldwater Institute, an influential right-wing think tank. Goldwater claimed the bills could save taxpayers $550 million per year, consistent with its ideological conviction that public workers should not have higher earning power than private workers. 


Arizona has a long history of introducing anti-union legislation or blocking legislation that would improve wages.


Despite conservative lawmakers’ best efforts to dampen the force of unionized workers in the state, a wave of teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019 known as the Red for Ed movement ultimately led to the passage of Prop. 208 in 2020, signifying a huge triumph for pro-union school staffers — including school-employed social workers. Prop. 208 is set to impose a 3.5% tax on individuals making over $250,000 or married couples making above $500,000 in order to increase funding for education. This will, in turn, increase school budgets and enable them to hire additional social workers.

But Republican groups and legislators were quick to challenge the constitutionality of the proposition, with the Goldwater Institute and state Senate President Karen Fann (R-Prescott) leading the charge. The case will be heard by the Arizona Supreme Court later this year. Five of the sitting justices were appointed by current Republican Governor Doug Ducey, who signed legislation in 2016 granting him the right to add two justices to the Arizona Supreme Court. This same court struck down a similar, union-positive teacher tax initiative in 2018.

While providing a necessary function within the public education realm, social workers also provide vast mental health services across industries: from state-run agencies working with underserved communities to private practice and health care. Within the health care space, the California-based United Healthcare Workers West branch of the Service Employees International Union stepped in to help advocate for health care social workers’ wages in 2019 (SEIU is a financial supporter of this website). The union funded a bid called the Arizona Hospital Worker Minimum Wage and Insurance Regulations Initiative, which, had it been passed to voters, would have forced hospitals to raise their minimum wage by 5%, with 5% incremental raises in the three following years. 

A superior court judge ultimately stepped in to rule that the summary of the measure signed by voters was not representative of the initiative. She also found that 110,000 signatures were invalid, thereby disqualifying the signatures and leaving the initiative in the dust. Notably, the bid was publicly opposed by Gov. Ducey, the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association and the Health System Alliance of Arizona.

The inability to organize has robbed social workers employed by larger entities in Arizona of one of the few tools available to fight for higher wages. The state government’s continued resistance to wage hikes and zeal for budget cuts to social service programs has damaged both the field and its workers, exacerbating the state’s increase in poverty and other social consequences following the financial crisis of 2008.

(This is the second in a three-part story. Tomorrow, we’ll describe how the Sheades are facing their challenges in a state where elected officials have largely opposed efforts to raise their wages.)


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