Why Do Some Jobs Pay So Little?

A recent one-day strike by fast-food workers has called attention to the low wages in the industry. James Surowiecki offers one reason that the issue's visibility has increased recently:

Still, the reason this has become a big political issue is not that the jobs have changed; it’s that the people doing the jobs have. Historically, low-wage work tended to be done either by the young or by women looking for part-time jobs to supplement family income. As the historian Bethany Moreton has shown, Walmart in its early days sought explicitly to hire underemployed married women. Fast-food workforces, meanwhile, were dominated by teen-agers. Now, though, plenty of family breadwinners are stuck in these jobs. That’s because, over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has done a poor job of creating good middle-class jobs; five of the six fastest-growing job categories today pay less than the median wage. That’s why, as a recent study by the economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones has shown, low-wage workers are older and better educated than ever. More important, more of them are relying on their paychecks not for pin money or to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families. Forty years ago, there was no expectation that fast-food or discount-retail jobs would provide a living wage, because these were not jobs that, in the main, adult heads of household did. Today, low-wage workers provide forty-six per cent of their family’s income. It is that change which is driving the demand for higher pay.

Given that reality, Surowiecki writes, raising the minimum wage by a few bucks a hour won't fix the problem. His prescription: more truly middle-class jobs and an expansion of the social safety net. "Fast-food jobs in Germany and the Netherlands," he writes, "aren’t much better-paid than in the U.S., but a stronger safety net makes workers much better off."

Cutting Class, With the School's Help

Via the Globe & Mail: it used to be that when you wanted to cut class, you'd have to get a friend to sign you into class, or you'd have to beat your parents home to delete any incriminating messages on the answering machine. But those methods are bush league compared to a recent California initiative. United Press International reports that 50 high school students were caught colluding with a school administrator in an attendance scam:

Our Daily Bleg: How Should a Professor Incentivize Classroom Attendance?

Art Wright, a professor*, writes in to say:

I have this problem: I am course-planning for the fall term right now, and I'm trying to figure out the best way to develop an attendance policy. Many professors deduct points or letter grades for a certain number of absences. In contrast, I had someone recommend that I give points if students come to most or all of the class meetings. So I'm left wondering: What is the best way to incentivize class attendance for my students? What, in your opinion, will get them to attend most – if not all — of the class meetings?

What advice do you have for Art?

If you're a professor, let us know what you've tried that has worked or failed. If you're a student or used to be one (I assume that means everyone here), what did it take to get you to show up regularly?

*By the way, Art is a visiting professor of New Testament at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Am wondering how readers might answer (or engage with) his question differently if I'd introduced him as such rather than simply as a "professor." Of all the assumptions we make and biases we carry, it strikes me that religion encourages some of the strongest ones.

Is a Wave of Scuppie Shoplifting Upon Us?

Perhaps not surprisingly, a crime trends survey of 52 U.S. retailers conducted by the Retail Industry Leaders Association found that 84 percent of them experienced an increase in “amateur/opportunistic” shoplifting last fall compared to the same period a year earlier. In this Gothamist interview, a self-proclaimed shoplifter, his/her identity obscured, details how he/she efficiently steals […]

Are Wal-Mart’s Products Normal?

Emek Basker is an incredibly creative (and under-appreciated) industrial organization economist. She is also surely the leading Wal-Mart-ologist, and has been studying big box stores for several years. Her most recent piece provides a very nice teaching example highlighting the importance of the income elasticity of demand; she also managed the perfectly accurate but cheeky […]

Surfing the Class

Several years ago I watched a particularly memorable “Law Revue” skit night at Yale. One of the skits had a group of students sitting at desks, facing the audience, listening to a professor drone on. All of the students were looking at laptops except for one, who had a deck of cards and was playing […]

A Future S.A.T. Question?

MySpace is to Facebook as Yahoo! is to ___________. The answer, according to Hitwise, is: Google. Just as Facebook users are higher on the socioeconomic ladder than MySpace users, people who use Google as their search engine are better off than those who use Yahoo!. Google is most popular among users defined as “Affluent Suburbia,” […]

Indexed: What Do Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a Border Fence Have in Common?

It isn’t easy to convey the intricacies of class warfare, housecleaning, immigration, a sci-fi classic, and the lottery in a couple of index cards. But Jessica Hagy, the proprietor of Indexed, has done it. (You can find her previous Freakonomics entries here.)