Why Educated Elites Don't Get the Low-Wage Economy

Here's a question for every reader of this post who lives in a major metro area and has at least a college degree: How many people do you know who make under $40,000 a year?

Exclude that artist friend who's husband is in finance. And eliminate younger people still paying their dues. I'm talking about people who really earn under $40,000 year. 

I'm betting you don't know that many people at this income level. In fact, if you live in New York, LA, Boston, Washington, or the Bay Area, you probably don't know many people over, say 40, who are earning under $75,000 a year—for the simple reason that this payscale is a minimum for what's needed to survive in those areas. 

All of which means that most of the people you know make a lot more money than the rest of Americans. According a recent analysis of earnings by the Social Security Administration, 53 percent of American workers make under $30,000 a year. Nearly three-quarters make under $50,000 a year. And 92 percent make under $100,000 a year. 

Surveys show that educated Americans are concerned about inequality and favor hikes in the minimum wage. Indeed, the most educated city in America—Seattle—just voted to raise the minimum wage for workers at that city's airport.

But I'd argued that most educated Americans don't viscerally get the low-wage issue because it's largely foreign to their lived experience. Among other things, this helps explain the way that elites are generally dismissive of labor unions and why, even though raising the minimum wage is hugely popular, it rarely rises to the top of the political agenda. 

To be sure, money in politics plays a key role in blocking progress toward a more equitable economy. But a clueless educated class—those people who dominate the national conversation—may play an equally big role. 

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