How Much Is Your Idealism Worth?

As a current job-seeker, I am especially sensitive to the market for recent graduates. Since I’m looking at a lot of do-gooder organizations, I somewhat expect that wages in such positions don’t keep pace with business or government positions. But how much of a cut am I supposed to accept in order to do “fulfilling” work?

What got me riled this time was this fellowship, a one-year position that offers $20,000 to recent graduates of undergrad or graduate programs (no differential for the latter’s further educational experience) or to activists with work experience who would benefit from a research-oriented environment. That sum is to live in Washington D.C., a city where rent can easily equal what the organization is paying as a monthly wage. Unlike many other organizations offering meager salaries, this one doesn’t make it up in free housing or elaborate benefits either. I don’t mean to single them out, because they are by no means the only ones exploiting young people. This is long common and accepted practice in the competitive world of internships; the question is how far it will extend into the world of employment, of qualified people who should be able to support themselves.

Yes, it is possible to live, even in D.C. or NYC, on $20,000. A frugal single person with no dependents and no debt who remains in good health might even save money. But throw some cavities in the picture, god forbid a broken bone or an appendectomy, maybe an unexpected pregnancy — it becomes clearer how tenuous the whole picture is. Such a low wage eliminates applications from anyone with a family, anyone with educational, homeowner or credit-card debt, anyone with medical issues — pretty much anyone who doesn’t have some savings or additional support of some kind (like parental funding for, say, car emergencies). Further, that person is unlikely to receive preventative medical and dental care or put aside savings or retirement during that year. Why should people doing “good work” be rewarded less than others? Furthermore, what kind of “ideals” are these organizations supporting when they remove diversity from the applicant pool and don’t meet even the basic needs of their weakest employees?

— posted by poetloverrebelspy


10 Responses to How Much Is Your Idealism Worth?

  1. Will says:

    A felowship is a weird example to use because (at least supposedly) part of your compensation there is working with experts in the field. In Telecom there are similarly small (or smaller!) fellowships in NYC, which is comparably expensive.

  2. Jancey says:

    I have a true “idealistic” (not, unfortunately to be confused with ideal) job- managing a group home of teenage boys on the NW side of chicago. They’re all wards, significant trauma history, mental illness, gang involved, etc etc. I have recently come to terms with my crap earnings, but I am still continually frustrated with my co-workers ability to resent me for refusing to work more than 50 hours a week. as a salary earner I get paid for 40. I will (and do, most weeks) work 50- last week was especially long at 54 hours between Monday and Friday, not including the 2 or 3 I’ve been on the phone yesterday and today. I frequently receive suggestions that I am not properly taking care of “my kids.” So not only am I unrewarded financially for taking this extremely taxing position, I am unsupported by my peers for trying to take care of myself. Sabotaging each other in this line of work seems especially ridiculous to me. THey’re not after my huge salary- what is the possible benefit?

  3. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Will, I guess I feel that this position, and many others entitled “fellowship,” are in fact a form of short-term employment. You will find few fellows, especially in small organizations, who feel that they aren’t treated as an actual employee. The main difference is that they aren’t compensated like one. And fellow or no, shouldn’t the money be enough to live on if the work is full-time (meaning there’s no other outlet for earning)?

    Jancey, I could write another entire post about my feelings on overworked, salaried employees. A consultant friend and I were arguing last weekend about consistently working beyond legal hours without further compensation. I feel at a certain point, a company/org simply needs to hire another person. Are the people pressuring you your equals? How many hours do they work? Who is responsible for setting the tone on responsible work behavior in the group home?

    How much of this do you think is related to the female-dominance of “do-gooder” fields? Could it be part of the entire not asking for enough mentality/socialization?

  4. Jancey says:

    My own supervisor actually encourages me to work less! He thinks my biggest issue is that I work too long of hours. My co-supervisors are the ones who imply I do not work long or hard enough. Because my group home is offsite from the rest of the residential units (they supervise individual units within a single large facility- “main campus”) I am not sure how many hours a week they work. I split my time between my group home and the main campus and rarely see them. My situation is somewhat specific, because I was hired to replace a supervisor who was doing a very bad, likely criminal, job. He was their friend. Now that I am attempting to bring the home into some kind of order I am relying on main campus for help. No longer do the group home and main campus exist separately. For example, if a kid is going crazy at the house, I will call for a crisis worker from main campus to help instead of just calling the police. None of the changes are outlandish, but they are changes- and people hate change!

    I do think that larger issues are at play. First, we’re all responsible for the welfare of between 6 and 10 wards with significant mental health and/or behavioral issues. Because their needs never go away, it is impossible to finish all the work. We’re all extremely stressed and guilty at not doing more. Even though resources I am using are supposed to be delegated to me/my kids, previously the home did not use them. So in my co-supervisors eyes I am not doing my job because I’m asking for my portion of the agency’s resources.

    Also, I’m the only white person (all others african american) and the only one with a masters (all others risen through the ranks). So there is obvious tension there, that I do understand my privileges contribute to.

    Finally, the large mis-management of social service agencies contributes to such problems. you are right, we need more people to be helping with the crazy amounts of work we try to do. My agency is not actually female dominated, but my graduating class certainly was! I have a “good” salary when compared to those i just graduated with. I’m actually looking for a new job (somewhat- it varies), and my friend who is getting a MSW/MBA told me not to accept less than $60K. I laughed in her face. If I want a job in my chosen field I cannot demand that much. However my degrees/ability should earn me at least that much. It is clear society does not value the work I do.

    I think the decision I/you/anyone who wore a green ribbon at graduation have to make is how much we’re willing to sacrifice. I’m fine with the money. I’m not fine with my co-workers acting like jerks when I am doing the absolute best I can. And I’m actually doing a pretty good job! I have the privilege of being able to look for another job. If my agency cannot create an environment in which I want to work than I will find one that will. Even if it is not a non profit, saving-humanity, feed the children type of work. I am still hopeful, though, that I will find a child welfare agency that respects its people. Or, get back to me in a few years and we can make our own do-gooder thing and be totally awesome to ourselves and employees!

  5. Jancey says:

    wow, sorry for that rant. I didn’t realize I got so carried away!

  6. Dana says:

    My friend Mary commented on this recently, focusing on the fields of library science and ESL teaching. I covered many of the same thoughts in my post about part-time jobs, too.

    Also, I had a conversation not too long ago with my aunt, who does a lot of political activism work, and she said she had been very flattered when the ACLU asked her to work for them, but had to turn them down because she can actually do math, and did in fact understand that they were going to be paying her ~$15/hr, no vacations, pretty much no benefits. All of these fields are female-dominated, and it really burns me to see job markets dominated by positions that can only be accepted by people who are already relatively priviledged.

  7. Jenie says:

    I cannot imagine living in DC on a mere $20,000. (Is that pre or post taxes?) If you lived in a broom closet under the stairs a la Harry Potter (which people do, for about $500/month) maybe. But as you pointed out, what would happen if you had a cavity or broke a bone?

    But, even more realistically, what would happen when you need to buy new pants for work because you’ve lost so much weight living off ramen? What happens when you want to grab a beer with friends? Or order a pizza? Or balancing metro costs to get to work with living in the suburbs for a little more room? Heavens to Betsy if you have student loans to pay off… or want to go home for Christmas.

  8. Jennie says:

    Holy cow, I spelled my own name wrong. D’oh.

  9. Mike says:

    I think the intangible rewards of many do-gooder jobs are one more thing that rich people can afford these days — part of the whole New Gilded Age thing. If you have enough rich people with idealistic spouses or kids, they’ll drive down the price of labor for idealistic and emotionally gratifying tasks.

    Jancey, I have no observations that apply to you. You’re just very impressive.

    Also, on the DC real-estate gossip side: As a student, I lived on a living-room futon in a Foggy Bottom apartment for $500 a month and thus avoided paying for transportation. It worked, as a temporary thing, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t live out in the burbs.

  10. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Jennie, of course pre-tax. Even in a closet, I’m pretty sure there’s not enough to feed your pet owl too.

    Dana, I read your earlier post but didn’t think about its connections to this one since I was focusing primarily on full-time work. But you’re absolutely right, the “privilege” of the job-taker implied is exactly the same. This quotation from your post struck me:

    “it seems subtly discriminatory to me to offer positions that assume the applicants have someone else to be dependent upon in order to have the basic necessities, such as access to health and dental care, taken care of.”

    And that is exactly the ethos which I can’t understand. Organizations that support diversity (like the org I wrote about) who are trying to attract diverse candidates (by seeking out “activists” rather than traditional students) — do they really not understand that the conditions they set up eliminate all but the privileged few? The government does exactly the same thing with its elaborate unpaid interns program — meaning the only people who will ever get ahead are those who are already ahead enough to take an unpaid position for 10 weeks. Now the tricky question: is this structural violence/racism/classism intentional or not?

    Someone needs to write the national health care post you implied in yours, Dana. I think this is an essential change which will dramatically impact worker choice. I nominate Mike.

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