Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Librarian salaries - and more

We had a speaker in under the auspices of The New Workplace Institute,, Dr. Julie A. Nelson, author of Economics for Humans. She had interesting things to say about our society’s muddled thinking about “caring” professions, ethical values and money.

For instance, how have we gotten the idea that mentioning money in the same context as caring is a contradiction? There seems to be a persistent and little-articulated idea that money is the sole domain of capitalists. It seems that caring professions cannot have anything to do with money because it betrays the ideals behind the profession. And there is the corollary that corporations and capitalists cannot take moral issues or ethics seriously. Some impermeable wall has developed between these two supposedly polar extremes: the ethical, moral, caring pole versus the capitalist, corporate pole.

Dr. Nelson gave a real-world example of nurses and the rhetoric that surrounds their struggles for better working conditions and pay. When steel workers strike, nobody slams them for asking for better wages, benefits or conditions – at least not in the moral judgement dimension. But when nurses, or teachers go on strike, the media, the employers and our own thinking often muddle two separate things. There is the caring aspect of their profession – caring for patients or students. And there is the fact that they are asking for money. Somehow, we have the idea that it sullies those in caring professions to think about money.

You hear this in discussions about pay levels for foster parents (link here, e.g.), or more recently, for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (link, e.g.). Dr. Nelson related the story of a foster family pressured to adopt a particular special needs child they were fostering. The foster parents refused, not because they did not love the child, but because they had very low family income and little health insurance. If they adopted the boy, they would lose the Medicaid insurance that assured him the medical treatment he needed. Social workers involved in the case made very harsh, judgemental statements that the parents were putting considerations of money ahead of love for the child. They failed to see that both considerations of money and of love were in the equation -- the one did not preclude the other.

Dr. Nelson noted that the history of many of feminized professions, like nursing, teaching, and caring for, children underlies the tradition of low salaries. For some years, nurses, teachers, child-care workers were young women between the home of their father and marriage. They were only in the job for a short while, and were expected to marry and become housewives after. Then, there is a newer model where those taking these low-pay jobs are assumed to be the secondary wage-earner. The spouse is the primary bread-winner and this teacher/nurse/child-care worker is earning “extra,” and doesn’t need to support a family. Neither of these models accommodates men or women who need to support themselves and a family doing these jobs. And the models do not address any issues of justice -- pay commensurate to the value to society.

This is a matter of direct import to librarians, another caring profession (and like nursing and teaching K-12, a highly feminized one). We librarians have a very hard time asking for more money, most of us. We feel we are somehow betraying our ideals, sullying our profession, to talk about compensation. When we do this, we are falling into a trap of confusing the values that underlie caring professions with some idea that money should not be attached to them. Why is it a bad thing to ask for a living wage? And how can it betray the values of caring and nurturing that brought us to such a profession? Let us work to decouple the two ideas. A good salary can be discussed in the same sentence as social responsibility.

This confusion not only keeps caring professions from making a reasonable salary, it can also divide corporate and capitalist ideas from ethics and social responsibility. Saying that there are two opposites that cannot be mixed results in isolating business from morality. This is at least as damaging to society as the assumption that moral individuals and organizations should not be concerned with money. Triple bottom line accounting is one method that attempts to give a measure and rationality to balancing the three ideas: profit, environmental conscience, and social responsibility. The Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_bottom_line) notes that the idea is to redefine corporate responsibility. The corporation is not just duty-bound to deliver maximum profits to share-holders, but to balance the interests of all “stakeholders” – employees, community, environment, that are affected by the corporation’s actions.

A very interesting argument at both “poles!” Money heart image was found at http://www.chicagoist.com/2006/06/06/fictional_reality.php, who claimed it was via indyvoter.org (though I did not find the image there).

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