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What is our labor worth?

· money,Capitalism,salary

I somehow went through UChicago without reading Adam Smith (or The Republic, for that matter), but I once-upon-a-time read parts of the Marx-Engles Reader. But trying to understand the costs and worth of labor for eighteen-year-old me, fresh in college, with only a single summer job under my belt, was fruitless. Hell, I don't think I really understood the complexity of it until after I was paying all my own bills without any help from my parents. When I got my first paycheck, knowing I had rent, utilities, internet, and cell phone to pay, my jaw dropped at the amount that went out in taxes. In that moment, I understood why there are fiscally conservative people who believes that if you work hard, you should be paid appropriately.

Then I remembered that I'm actually a democratic socialist and accepted my contribution to the rest of the country.

I think about this experience of taking on fiscal responsibility for myself. I thought I'd done so when I entered my master's program, on my measly $11,000/year stipend, but I still had a credit card tied to my name, and my mother wrote me frequent checks. But I didn't really understand the burden of money until my dad cut me off from the family phone line. I'd been on it since I was thirteen and a half, and now I found myself paying for it from my own paycheck. On top of the credit card debt I'd gotten myself into, on top of rent and utilities.

I finally understood, then, two things: one, something Gabe had said from the beginning, "Things fall into perspective when you're working full-time and paying everything yourself," and two, how many people in this economy are perpetually stuck in poverty.

At the time, I lived in Pilsen, an "up-and-coming" neighborhood in Chicago, where Gabe and I split a 1.5-bedroom, 1-bath apartment for $1200/month. (We were paying way too much, but Gabe loved the high ceilings and the light that spilt into our living room, and we were literally next to a train station.) I had graduated from my MS program and was making $35,000/year as a research tech in a university in the suburbs. I commuted four hours a day, and paid about $260/month in transportation.

There was no place in Chicago near enough to a train that I could have afforded to live on my own, not if I also wanted to pay off my credit cards and eventually start savings. It's laughable now that I barged ahead and moved in with Gabe without giving the financials a fair consideration. He was making more money than I was, and still, he spent much of what he made monthly on bills.

The two of us together made a middle class income, and even I was able to budget and begin saving a little. (By the time that mattered, we got married and merged our finances.) How I long for those days now, when we're chipping away at the savings Gabe so meticulously built, just so that I can follow my dream, or something. Happiness can be bought, to some extent; it's called not having to worry about paying your bills.

In all respects, I'm responsible for my financial situation. I used up all the money I had from my various jobs in college, and entered into an MS program with no savings and an insistence of living in the city. (To be fair, it would have been unrealistic and terrible to live two hours away--basically, what I ended up doing the following year when I worked full-time.) I left the financial security of a PhD stipend, only making a little less than what I had as a tech. Sitting here, writing these words, is entirely on me.

So what about the people who are working harder than I am and can't blame themselves for their situation?

My family was poor growing up--my mom didn't work/go back to school I was about six--but we were lucky enough to have affordable rent (the perks of living in a religious center). Any money we had went to Seena's therapies, while we could afford them, and when my dad got laid off, I never felt that burden. I never felt what it was like to be poor, and it's only looking back that I realize we were for a long time. But my parents, as immigrants, weren't trapped in the cycle of poverty that many multi-generational families in the US are. They only had to focus on pulling us up enough to float.

And it's clear to me that they remember the pain of not making ends meet. My mother wanted an extravagant (to me) house in the suburbs of Kenosha because she was in her mid-forties and wanted her own house. My dad combs through all receipts and wonders how he could have saved an extra dollar. I used to roll my eyes and laugh, but I didn't really understand the fear of seeing your bank account dwindle close to zero when you have mouths to feed, even if it's just your own.

(But that is all I can truly say about poverty. There are lots of wonderful articles that think about poverty in a really critical and thoughtful way, like this one. It's also so important to think about how class intersects with everything else, too, like race.)

I bring all of this up because I'm circling around a fundamental question: what is our labor worth?

As a freelancer, I'm supposed to set my own rates. The reality is that most of us are exploited for our work. Upwork, where I look for editing jobs, takes 20% of my earnings. The steady job I have through there pays me $1.1/1000 words to edit erotic manuscripts, and expects at least 10,000 words a day. Another company I edit for pays me about 1.4 cents/word the edit whatever comes through. As a writer, I usually make about $150 on an essay of 1200 or so words. So actually, as a freelancer, I don't really set my own rates--not yet, anyway. I'm scrambling to get what I can.

But is it so very different in a typical job? I was paid $35,000 to be a research tech, where I designed and ran my own experiments, analyzed my data, and (theoretically) worked on presentations. This is after receiving my MS degree and designing an entirely new paradigm. As an undergraduate, I worked graduate student hours in my lab for free. The exchange was supposed to be training and a letter of recommendation. I also worked minimum wage at the gym doing membership services, and later was a TA and had an internship that paid $2000 for the year.

What is our time and energy worth, as people who create and produce and work in society? Service work is work, sex work is work, and industrial work is work. Yet people in jobs on which the rest of us depend are scorned and not paid their due. Someone else has decided what our labor is worth, someone who may have never worked our jobs, and we're the ones that have to make by. And the way we get "better" jobs, theoretically, doesn't always pan out.

It feels like I assign new worth to my labor now that I'm freelance. It's unbelievable that I made $35,000/year before taxes after getting my MS. Now, making that much from my writing seems like a dream come true. Absolutely heaven and more than I deserve. Why? It's still me and it's still my labor. Why is it different now? I don't think it just has to do with art--because my thinking applies to my editorial work as well.

What is your work worth, whether you work for yourself or not? And what does it mean that so many of us can hardly get by with it?

This was originally featured as a Tuesday Telegram on March 7, 2017. Join us every Tuesday at

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