Sometimes I think that everyone who makes policy for a living should have to work for at least a few months in a minimum wage job at some point in their lives.
Yes, they’d discover just how low the minimum wage actually is relative to the cost of living. But they would also discover just how unstable the hours often are, and how damaging that instability is to people trying to move up in the world. I was reminded of that yet again recently upon hearing Tyler Cowen declare on a podcast that worsening inequality is both inevitable and not really a big deal. It is, and I see it on campus every day.
Among their other indignities, minimum wage jobs often come with hours that fluctuate from week to week. That wreaks havoc with budgeting, for obvious reasons, but it also wreaks havoc with just about every other part of life. If you don’t have a car, you rely on the local bus schedule to get around. If your hours change every week, you may find your commuting time abruptly doubling because suddenly you’re out there when the buses only run once an hour. (Alternately, if you have an unreliable car, a suddenly urgent repair can throw your budget into chaos at any moment.) If you’re juggling college with work, you have immovable class hours bumping into constantly-moving work hours; an arrangement you cobbled together this week may be completely upended next week, only to be upended again the following week. That’s a level of daily stress that many of your fellow students aren’t carrying.
And that’s before considering childcare. Children love routine, and care providers often require it. Finding safe and affordable childcare is hard enough without the hours changing every week. Daycare centers often aren’t open at night. And even the ones that are often require a relatively stable set of hours each week.
On the home front, constantly-shifting hours do a number of such basics as meal planning and shopping, let alone such “extras” as kids’ sports. I’m constantly amazed that TB’s fall baseball team assumes that every kid can be at practice by 5:00 on weeknights. And it’s not unusual in that. Yes, people can find work-arounds sometimes, but every work-around requires more effort. The sheer amount of work that goes into compensating for being non-standard amounts to a massive tax, or, if you prefer, insult added to injury.
In this world, the argument for community colleges to offer online classes becomes pretty compelling. If work and childcare and transportation arrangements are constantly shifting, it may be difficult or impossible to commit to being in room 125 every Tuesday at 11:00 for four months. An online class is still a commitment -- and it presumes predictable internet access, which is a real cost -- but at least it takes some of the logistics out of the equation. If that online class includes open educational resources in place of textbooks, then the cost to the student is reduced significantly, which helps, too.
I’m a fan of community colleges being reasonably responsive to student needs this way. But at a certain point, the colleges can go only so far. At some point, the issue is that what students really need is stable home lives with predictable work hours and safe childcare. Some of that is beyond the reach of policy, obviously -- romantic breakups are a part of life -- but the level of risk that we offload onto the people with the fewest resources to handle it is just beyond reasonable.
Yes, it’s about money, but it’s not just about money. It’s about having enough predictability in life that you can devote time and energy to studying, rather than to figuring out where to put your kid next week or how to get to work when the engine is dead and the buses aren’t reliable. Colleges can take positive steps, but if so many students are constantly exhausted just from navigating the vagaries of precarious lives, the effort will have to go far beyond colleges. It would be helpful if the folks making educational policy choices had some sense of that.