A statement on life’s wages

Marketplace Staff Mar 20, 2007

A statement on life’s wages

Marketplace Staff Mar 20, 2007


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: A lot of Americans will get something in the mail tomorrow: their Social Security checks. Recipients get the checks on Wednesday except for the first Wednesday of the month. For some it can be a bittersweet portrait of what a life’s work is worth. Commentator Russell Frank explains.

RUSSELL FRANK: The earnings record the Social Security Administration sent me the other day shows just what a poor performer I’ve been since I joined the work force as a 16-year-old hardware store clerk.

The job paid me $120 — for the year! Minimum wage in 1970 was less than $2 an hour.

My fellow clerks constructed hash pipes out of plumbing parts and stole entire tool kits one piece at a time, the way Johnny Cash assembled his Cadillac.

But a few months into year two, Murray the manager fired me. I was a poor key maker and a worse shelf paper-cutter. Earnings for the year: less than $500.

Was I distraught about getting canned from my first job? Are you kidding? I’d quadrupled my income in a year! At that rate I’d be middle-class by the age of 20 and a billionaire at 30.

Alas, my year three income from a summer of assembling ice buckets and Lazy Susanssagged below $400.

I spent July and August of year four testing batches of cake mix for contamination. I singed the hair off my arms and nearly set my afro on fire. My earnings surged to $1,300.

In year five, I traded my lab coat for a camp counselor’s whistle. This was a major step down, income-wise.

The summer of year six I learned I was even worse at tennis court construction than I was at keys, shelf paper and food science. After a month of wallowing in tennis court glop, I grabbed what was left of my meager wages and went camping.

In the end, it took me 15 years to break 20 grand.

I could beat myself up for making less money in my entire working life than Alex Rodriguez will get per game this season, but I prefer to read my earnings record as a friendly reminder that money isn’t everything.

If it were, I’d have to kill myself.

THOMAS: Russell Frank teaches journalism at Pennsylvania State University.

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