Monday, May 8, 2017

Stagnant Wages, Inequality, and Early Retirement

Stagnant Wages, Inequality, and Early Retirement
The other day the missus and I were browsing through our wage history on the Social Security Website, ssa.gov, because we are nerds. Or, at least I am, and my wife loves me enough to humor my personal finance oddities.

My first wages? All the way back in 1994, when I was earning $4.25 an hour busing tables on the weekends at King's: Pittsburgh's crummy version of a Denny's. (Our good version? Eat'n Park. If you have the opportunity, by all means try the salad bar, a coffee, and a smiley cookie.) Since then, it's been a fairly steady march towards higher and higher wages, with some big jumps coinciding with big life choices (leaving the public sector, turning my back on teaching, and selling out to become a corporate shill).

But then I heard Friday's episode of Marketplace Weekend, titled "Hours are Long and Wages Are Low" and it just didn't jive with my own wage history. Lizzie O'Leary documented the stories home health workers, those nurses who take care of our parents and grandparents now that we no longer care for them in our own homes. Despite the work being unthinkably difficult, both found solace in the fact that they do important work: work that is challenging and fulfilling. The big problem? The wages are not enough to really live on. $10.50 an hour was the figure O'Leary cited.
"I would think somebody's care and life would be worth more than that....what we earn does not really compensate for what we do. But I've accepted that because it allows me to care for my father, as well."
Ten bucks an hour? To care for our sick, elderly family members? I was earning 50% more than that as an office assistant, answering phones and filing invoices, with no college degree.

Still, having taught for a while, too, I have a little experience with the peculiar situation of society claiming both that "your job is truly critical to our future" and "we have no way to address the low compensation". Because wages aren't a real reflection of how society values a position (lest we think we really value the contributions of CEOs, who average a paltry $13.8 million a year). Organizations can only pay what their budgets allow, regardless of an employee's impact, regardless of how society benefits.

But back to those health workers. $10.50 an hour works out to $21,840 a year, if you work forty hours a week for all fifty two weeks of the year. This is the kind of wage that gets you just above the federal poverty level, even if you have two kids. So you better hope for a raise or for a second earner in your household. At at that kind of hourly wage we can assume there is hardly any wage growth in that sector: the figure would simply have to be higher if there were. In fact, the rate of year-over-year wage growth has been declining for decades.

Stagnant Wages, Inequality, and Early Retirement
Image from tradingeconomics.com/united-states/wage-growth

The Pew Center has an even more stark view of historical wage growth, as they've disaggregated the data into different segments of workers.

Stagnant Wages, Inequality, and Early Retirement

I feel fairly ashamed looking at my own wage growth over the past twenty years, especially when comparing the relative merits of my corporate work to those of someone literally keeping sick, old people alive and happy. Since diving into the deep end with Fortune 500 companies in 2010, my current salary is now about four times what it was when I was teaching. And I'm still the same dude, presumably with only moderately better skills. I just chose a career path that pays better.

I don't say that just to be an asshole, bragging about his salary. But we always seem to hear about wealth inequality. Maybe we should be talking about wage inequality. If we are to believe the chart from the Pew Research Center, roughly half of our workers have not seen any real wage growth in the past fifteen years, with all of the gains going to those who already earn more in the first place. This just means more inequality, for both wages and wealth, over time.

For we lucky few who are pursuing financial independence and early retirement, it's a good reminder to recognize that we are lucky. And maybe we should recognize that high wages are almost always a crucial element to our FIRE plans, and that simple frugality is not going to lead to an early retirement for a home health worker earning $10.50 an hour.

If you're like me, and are fortunate enough to be working towards a crazy financial goal like retiring at forty, remember to feel gratitude along the way, while supporting some policy changes that will allow more of our neighbors the opportunity to pursue the same sort of things, too.


*Photo is from xersti at Flickr Creative Commons.

41 comments:

  1. Well, real wages have been stagnant since the 1970s. However, this is the information for everybody.

    At the individual level, things vary - some move up ( upwards mobility), while others move down ( downwards mobility). This is why I find that the breaking down income by percentiles doesn't tell the whole story. I typed the response above, after asking myself the following questions:

    How many of the people who were in the 10th percentile in 2000, are still in this percentile? And how many people in the 90th percentile from 2000 are still there?

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    1. I remember seeing something interesting on income mobility a while back, Dividend Growth Investor. I seem to recall it said most people spend at least one year in the top quintile of earners. Still, one year is a tiny fraction...there's probably a better way to measure the long term fluctuations (e.g. - looking at variance in Social Security earnings)

      Regardless, even if there is mobility the Pew Center's graph is particularly discouraging to me. The median line and below saw fifteen straight years of stagnant wages, or worse: some of those lines slightly decline. When a full half of the population is stagnant at any given time, mobility in and out of those groups is small solace.

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  2. Well, I don't entirely agree that early retirement is something reserved for top earners - since I got there without ever making more than $45K/year at my "real job" (and that was only for a year or two - throughout most of my working life I made substantially less than that.) But, you do have to be willing to live a lifestyle that's quite different than the average American in order to pull it off. And, I suppose, be willing to see "retirement" as more of "life without employment" rather than "life without any work."

    Anyhow, I do think that the disconnect you see between upwardly mobile high wage earners and everybody else is real. It's the inevitable outcome of the neo-liberal economic policies (deregulation, privatization, cutting taxes & government spending, etc) that took hold of this country in the Regan era. The money just piles up at the top and everyone else is left fighting for scraps.

    You might enjoy this article:
    https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/america-is-regressing-into-a-developing-nation-for-most-people
    It has an interesting perspective on the issue.

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    1. True, you are kind of the exception that proves the rule in FIRE, in my opinion. I tend to think of us as a pretty homogeneous group, but there really are some folks who didn't earn a ton in their working careers, aren't engineers or in IT, etc. ;)

      I agree that the policies of the 80s and, sadly, even the 90's under Clinton (ironically one of the last periods of true bipartisanship) may have made the inequality we're seeing much more severe and widespread than it could otherwise have been. The older I get, the more I can appreciate the merits of sensible regulation.

      I'm going to hit the sack soon but will definitely check out that article in the morning. Thanks for your awesome comments, as always.

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    2. That is a good read Eco.

      I was particularly struck by this sentence, "If we spent more on domestic rather than military activities, then the middle class would not vanish as quickly."

      As an ex military officer myself (some years doing major capital purchases for the military) and now one who is decidedly a Top 10% income, I've been saying this for years. Military spending is not an investment. It's pure expense.

      Think of military spending as buying your car (necessary to a point, but loses value immediately) versus domestic spending as buying and improving your house (invest for the present and realize returns in the future). That's the way I think of it anyway, having spent many years on the car/military side, which the average populace doesn't really understand and unfortunately, glorifies way out of proportion to its actual value.

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    3. Fantastic article, Eco. I liked this quote quite a lot: "Politicians increasingly influenced by the FTE sector turned from public-spirited universalism to free-market individualism." The divide in the approaches seem to be everyone for themselves (probably coming from an honest belief that this is the only way to really improve) versus a belief that we need approaches/policies/programs that try to help everyone: that we're all in it together.

      The article reminded me a lot of the work from Chris Arnade. I think you'd dig his stuff. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/21/outside-coastal-bubbles-to-say-america-is-already-great-rings-hollow



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    4. Glad you both liked the article. Tin, I totally agree with your analysis of military spending. I have a brother who works for a defense contractor. He sits at a desk all day hauling in a tax-payer-funded 6 figure salary and an extremely cushy benefits package, yet he rails incessantly about the "lazy poor people" living off of the government - and no, he doesn't see the irony.

      It reminds me of another great article I read recently (but now can't find) which basically posited that if you consider the enormous tax breaks that corporations receive for providing health care and other benefits, the US already has a massive tax-payer funded welfare system - but that the benefits are restricted to those within the corporate system. Those outside of the system (the self employed, etc) all end up in a "secondary" system which is significantly less generous.

      And Brian, I totally agree that the conservatives have totally drunk the "rugged individualism" Kool-Aid. The problem is (aside from the whole us vs. me dichotomy) is that the playing field is completely tilted. Those with the power continue to make laws which benefit them and penalize everyone else.

      And one other point about Clinton's less than progressive policies. I think you have to see that all in context. The Democrats basically sold their souls for universal health care and lost. In the aftermath, the Republicans swept in and took control of congress - remember Newt Gingrich and the whole "contract with America" BS? I think Republicans had a very large hand in shaping the economic policies of the era, and had the Democrats succeeded in their bid to get us universal health care, everything would have been much, much different.

      OK... thanks for the link on the Guardian article - I'm off to read it now!

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    5. OK... that was a disheartening read. It all just underscores what I've believed for a long time - people don't understand how their government works. The refrain I keep hearing (not just in this article, but elsewhere) is that Obama promised so much but didn't deliver. Yet nobody ever seems to realize that the President doesn't make laws, congress does... and furthermore, that the laws are only as good as the courts say they are. Heavy sigh.

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    6. Sure, though I think there's some truth to trying to enact legislation via the presidency as well. (i.e. - Voting for Clinton in 16 was likely voting for a stalemate with Congress and very little legislation...voting for Trump is likely voting for a lot of GOP legislation).

      I generally have the same reaction as you do reading some of the comments, but I have to note that we are falling into the very trap that both writers are talking about: we are confirming the divide between two Americas. The educated, fairly liberal America that knows better, and, unfortunately, we talk down to the other America: they are ignorant, backwards, don't really understand how the economy or politics work, etc.

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    7. Well, if it means anything, I have the same argument with my highly educated well-off liberal friends who have now decided that Obama is just a neo-liberal sellout, and blame him for not accomplishing enough. I think Bill Maher said it best: People need to learn the difference between an imperfect friend and a mortal enemy.

      I don't actually blame the people who voted for Trump because they believed he would help them. I blame the left wing educated crowd who wouldn't lower themselves to vote for Clinton. If they'd all voted Democratic instead of choosing 3rd (and 4th) party candidates, we wouldn't be looking at the horror show we're currently facing.

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    8. Eco, I agree with your pouty lefties blame, but I also blame people like my uncle. Net takers from the system (Medicaid for his disabled daughter, since she was born) and yet he's been conned by talk radio to rail at the Democrats, who are the only ones who are trying to help families like his.

      Yes, I'm a bit of an elitist. I'm elitist against those who aren't smart enough to see they are being conned.

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    9. Good points, both. Voting for a third party candidate when there's a demagogue as a major party candidate is very hard to justify. And yeah, I'm a bit of an elitist, too...just trying hard to understand and empathize with these people who went the other way in November.

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    10. Count me in the elitist camp too. The great irony of this all seems to me that if you look at the electoral map, there's a HUGE correlation between red states and states that are "net takers" as Tin describes them. I honestly struggle to understand why people consistently vote against their own interests.

      My step-mom is from Germany, and my dad tells a great story on this topic. They were visiting her family in Cologne, I think this was shortly after the election of George W. Bush. They were at some sort of a family gathering and one of my step-mom's brothers pulled my father aside. Dad thought he was about to divulge some sort of deep dark family secret, but instead he said: "Please tell me, why do Americans always vote against their own interests?" My Dad burst out laughing!

      I sure wish I knew the answer to that question! Perhaps it's just aspirational thinking, and people have somehow convinced themselves that _____ (fill in blank with immigrants, poor people, lazy people or whatever) are screwing them over, meanwhile the corporations and wealthy are laughing all the way to the bank.

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    11. Part of the problem, as Arnade notes, is that when we talk about "their interests" we on the left are boiling everything down to economics. Your interests are jobs, benefits from jobs or the government, etc.

      But voters aren't purely economic beings. Social issues matter (a common reason given for why conservatives held their nose and voted for Trump was the Supreme Court and the issue of abortion). And while this is a pretty unsavory thing to bring up, but identity politics played a big role in the last election: white identity politics. The issues that speak to white, middle and lower class voters in Appalachia and the midwest.

      Anyway, I think the "vote for your interests" thing comes from a Sanders-esque, nearly communist way of thinking that everything is an economic issue when boiled down, and that just doesn't fly with real people who also care about social issues and identity issues.

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    12. That's an interesting take that I hadn't really considered, but I think you're on to something. I guess I tend to dismiss most of the topics you raised as xenophobia, racism, or bigotry as opposed to a legitimate "interest". I dunno... it's a hard one for me to swallow - must I be tolerant of someone else's intolerance?

      Of course, I've read several articles criticizing Democrats for focusing too much on social issues like gay marriage rather than the economic issues that were of paramount concern to Trump voters.

      Either way you slice it, I think it's safe to say that there is a huge cultural divide in this country which seems to trump (no pun intended) all other concerns. And I can't help but think that the moneyed interests in this country are exploiting it for their own gain.

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    13. Good point: I'd heard the same criticism from the Sanders wing...that we're not talking about economic issues ENOUGH. Just goes to show you're damned if you do.

      But altogether, my goal is to be a bit more understanding of people who make very different political choice than I do, especially if they're not doing so well. The candidates available aren't going to offer them the same upside that they do to me. For example, Clinton is very clearly a status quo vote: if you liked Obama's tenure you were pretty likely to like Clinton. But if the last 8 years weren't awesome for you, I suppose I can see how a brash outsider with no experience might at least offer you volatility: a chance to change things up dramatically. Again, stealing from Arnade, if you're already at the bottom, volatility is exactly what you want: you have barely anything to lose, and a lot to gain.

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    14. I think you're right that people felt they had nothing to lose - and they'd just as soon blow up the whole system as be stuck in the status quo. Although I would argue that the problem with the status quo is not Democratic presidents and/or policies, but the stalemate caused by the partisan divide.

      I guess that's the one good thing to come out of the current political situation. We now essentially have one party rule - Republicans control all three branches of government - so we get to see what Republican policies, unfettered by Democratic restraints, actually look like. It's been interesting so far! ;-)

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  3. I'm very lucky to have gone into a field with relative good pay. Couple that with living a frugal lifestyle and early retirement was possible for me. If I didn't make as much money, I'd probably have to cut way back. Or maybe not, transition to being a blogger would be much easier if I didn't make that much money. The income wouldn't have changed drastically like it did. Last year, I made about 25% of what I made as an engineer...

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    1. Hey, Joe.

      Engineer is one of those careers I just associate with FIRE for whatever reason. I think MMM did a poll a while back and I want to say almost half of the respondents were engineers or IT professionals.

      I can see there's a double edged sword with the high income when you try to transition to a much lower income level with blogging or other early retirement passive income. For what it's worth, I read through your regular updates and, at least to me, it seems like you have several solid income streams.

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  4. we value the Kardashians and footbal players (if they are not physically injured, though head injured and on tons of steriods is OK)

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  5. oops... football... (we do not value spelling much though anyway- a dying art)

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    1. It is kind of depressing thinking of how much celebrities and athletes make. Then I consider that someone even richer is cutting them paychecks, and then my brain hurts.

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    2. Oops again, it is steroids.

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    3. It's rare that we get the spelling and grammar police on the blog. Welcom!

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  6. Nice article, Done By Forty. We are indeed a privileged bunch and high incomes make a lot of it possible. "This just means more inequality, for both wages and wealth, over time." And more anger and frustration.

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    1. Agreed on the anger and frustration, Laurie. We're creating a system in which income mobility keeps getting lessened, to the point that the American Dream (or at least how it traditionally is defined) is much more likely to be achieved in countries like Canada than the US. Shameless plug in 3...2....1

      http://www.donebyforty.com/2017/02/the-unsustainable-american-dream.html

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  7. I agree with EcoCatLady's sentiments. And with yours that we need to be more grateful. Rick, the kids and I sat down and watched Living on One Dollar a couple of weeks ago. That went a long way in helping us with gratitude. As does our volunteer stints at a local food shelf. Gratitude can happen on any spectrum of the income scale. We have these three homeless ladies that come to every food shelf event with smiles and laughter, thanking us all the way home for the free food we hand out. It's amazing. I've never heard them complain, and I'm betting they'd be thrilled to make $10 an hour.

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    1. Good point, Laurie. Perspective matters a lot, and if you look even a little, you can probably find someone who'd be happy with a situation that someone else is dissatisfied with.

      I have a hard time squaring that possibility for infinite gratitude with genuine problems though. That is to say, I think stagnant wages are a real problem if you're making $10.50 an hour.

      I, personally, feel grateful for what I'm making...but I wouldn't feel comfortable telling them just to feel grateful for their wages, if that makes sense. If they do, great. But in this case I think they have a legitimate problem to address.

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  8. Whenever I have this wage inequality discussion with friends, I always end up being the odd one out. I guess coming from an immigrant experience, I tend to see things very differently from people who grew up in Canada. It's always good to be grateful, but in my experience, it SO much easier to get out of poverty (not saying it's easy, just easier) in North America than other so-called third world and second world countries. Basically from an immigrant's eyes, if you were born in NA, you basically won the lottery. Which is why it's very confusing to an immigrant, why people who were born in the NA end up continuing to be in poverty, while other people who came to country with absolutely nothing, end up pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and go on to get much higher earnings and better jobs over time. Maybe it has something to do with culture, maybe it has to do with perspective. I don't know for sure, but it seems like people who don't spend time on things that are out of their control, but rather direct it towards things they can change (gaining better skills, picking careers that pay well), get ahead faster than those who wait for the world to change or the government to step in. But then again, I was raised by hard asses who went through a famine and a bloody communist revolution with an inherent distrust of the government and very little empathy (since they got very little empathy themselves), so that might be the reason for my difference of opinion.

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    1. My mother is an immigrant, and she's certainly (probably?) done better for herself than she would have had she stayed in the Philippines.

      And I can appreciate the viewpoint that hard work is the way out of poverty. That's usually the refrain from people who have succeeded: I worked hard, I studied, I sacrificed...others could do the same if you're willing to put in the work. I think it's certainly true for the immigrant community, by and large.

      I should note that we, Asian immigrants and their children, are a stark anomaly in the US, at least. We not only buck the trend of academic achievement for immigrants, but we also do so well in the workforce that we are the only minority that earns more on average than whites. The reasons for this aren't exactly known. But I do know we're the outlier group -- we may not be the best baseline from which to compare other immigrant groups, or other groups trying to climb up an economic rung.

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  9. Nothing unfair about income diversity. The marketplace determines value and it isn't based on importance. Educating kids is more important than chemical engineering but it isn't as valuable because there are tens of millions of people with the ability to teach but only a few thousand bright enough to learn my trade. It isn't right or wrong it is just an example of how scarcity impacts price. Air and water are vastly more important than filet mignon to supporting human life yet they are virtually free because they are abundant while the supply of steak is very limited. To earn high wages you must have skills or knowledge that is both needed and rare.

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    1. Hmmm. So because wages are based on scarcity, that also means the system has "nothing unfair" about how incomes are determined?

      Seems like a bit of a leap. I can see why scarcity determining wages is logical. That's a far cry from an argument for fairness.

      We should note that issues of gender, race, disability, etc. all intertwine and feed into wage disparities. Am I honestly to state to women, people of color, and immigrants that the system is fair? That we have a meritocracy in which whatever you are paid is fair compensation for your skills?

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  10. Isn't it funny how the ones who hold all the power and practically get to decide what they get paid are getting all of the income growth?

    There should definitely be limits on CEO to lowest paid employee ratios. There is no way people are worth or even need that sort of pay to justify attracting the best talent. The system is set up to attract mainly sociopaths into the very top positions it seems because normal honest people wouldn't dream of thinking they're worth that amount. Cap it and you might actually get some people who just want to do the best job rather than just cream as much money out of the company then f**k off and leave it to burn.

    All in my humble opinion of course :)

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    1. CEO pay, in particular, is hard to justify in terms of it being fair compensation, in lock step with how scarce that talent is, etc.

      Ironically, investors are probably in the best position to push back on this compensation...yet high net worth individuals are often the ones who ascribe to a complete laissez faire approach when it comes to such regulation or activist investing.

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    2. Interesting "sociopath" thought. Given 4% of the population are sociopaths (See "The Sociopath Next Door"), there is probably at least a little bit of truth to that.

      My wife wants to be a CEO, and she's close. Not sociopathic at all, but tired of following stupid CEO's who do bad things for companies she's in.

      I myself have never had a CEO desire, except I've always wanted to "be my own boss" (who hasn't?).

      I'm most enamored by founder/CEO's (until they inevitably age out and have to hand over the reigns). They seem to a) deserve it, b) have the right amount of passion, and c) usually care more about company/employees than what Wall Street thinks.

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    3. Hi Tin,

      Of course it's far more complicated than anyone can elaborate in a short blog comment or even full length blog post. There are surely plenty of decent CEOs out there, and I was just being blunt to both make a point and for brevities sake.

      Cheers ;)

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  11. I don't know how to organize my thoughts on this so I will just write whatever... I was a CNA after college when I was searching for a career and thought I might like nursing. I was making $6/h or something like that and got a 25 cent raise (yay!) then Oregon raised the minimum wage to $6.25 so it didn't mean much. I hated the job and quit after 3 months. Flash forward to my father having Alzheimer's and needing 24 hour care. We looked in to hiring a home aide but couldn't afford $10/hr which comes out to $6,720/m so he had to go in a memory care facility for $3,500/m. Huge staff overturn, things go missing, strange bruises, we wonder what goes on there, read lots of stories of abuse. The homes are there to make a profit. Old people die and new ones move in. Medicare doesn't pay for it. The homes that accept Medicaid often have bad reputations. My Dad didn't qualify for Medicaid anyway since he had a modest pension. Are children willing to spend their inheritance on keeping parents alive and comfortable? Often times not plus we couldn't spend all of his assets since my mother still needed to be supported. Many times I tried to figure out how I could quit my job and take care of my Dad but I couldn't watch him 24/7 either and would need help. It's a terribly complicated situation. I totally agree that home health care workers are not paid enough and yet I couldn't afford one at $10/h, 8 hours a day because that would just allow me to sleep and then I would have to watch my Dad the other 16 hours. Now that Dad is gone, my plan is for me to move in with my mother. Hopefully she won't start to wander or burn anything down while I'm at work.

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    1. I think that's really cool that your plan is involving living with your mom. It's so rare to hear about that sort of situation now, even though it used to be the norm.

      As you noted, the real downward pressure on home health pay comes from limitations on the pay of regular workers: we can only afford what our budgets allow.

      Addressing widening inequality will, in turn, also have a positive impact on the wages of those people we indirectly employ/hire.

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  12. YES. THIS. ALL OF THIS. But especially the last two paragraphs.

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    1. Thanks, Piggy! I just listened to the podcast and really loved it. It's so cool to hear the perspective of someone with their heart focused on those who haven't already made it, are already rich/high earners, have everything figured out...

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    2. Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me. :)

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