There was a brief article put out by Yahoo! and Monster.com today, titled “Worst Paying College Degrees of 2011.” Followers of my blog will know that this is a topic that tends to get my dander up. I’ve already written fairly extensively on the methodological issues in assessing the value of particular majors, and the general problems involved in ranking them. The reason that this Monster article caught my attention is that it connects to a rather broader topic that’s been on my mind a good deal lately.
I was walking around another local street festival last weekend, where there was a arts and crafts show being held, populated by a variety of vendors presumably from the local area trying to sell a few instances of their hard work in order to support themselves through a livelihood about which they have a great deal of passion. In an environment like this, one presumes that the people you’re seeing must be struggling. It’s not necessarily a presumption based on careful observation. It’s a collective understanding that non-famous artists don’t make money from their art. I know that I was told that was the case all throughout my life. The term “starving artist” gets a lot of traction. I was also cautioned about the deficiency of money in my chosen profession. Writers don’t make much money, they said, and I’d have to be comfortable with that if I were to pursue that goal. I invariably told them that I was. But I also took them to mean that “not much” meant still being able to pay rent.
I’ve been to a lot of art shows and street fairs in my life, and it was only on this past Sunday that a certain line of inquiry triggered in my mind as I looked over the merchandise. Art’s not cheap. That fact applies not just to the price tag hanging off of a canvas or a sculpture, but to the various investments that go into its production. Every one of the people who were selling their work out on the streets of one of Buffalo’s suburbs had to have the capital for raw materials, printing costs, studio rental space, and such things as credit card machines. Every one of them had to have a couple hundred dollars just to purchase a slot as a vendor at the festival. But what really caught my attention as it never had before were some of the photography that was present. I’ve seen so much photography from far-flung places at the various outdoor shows, and it’s always been clear to me that the travel involved with acquiring and distributing beautiful foreign landscape shots required a great deal of money, at least by my standards. Looking over that work inspires me and yet makes me profoundly sad, because I certainly can’t go to witness its source first-hand, and in all likelihood I never will. But it was only this past Sunday that I attached the understanding of that relative affluence to the commonplace notion of the starving artist. When people say that artists don’t make any money, to what are they comparing their earnings?
As I think back on it, I realize I’ve encountered a skewed social perspective on wealth and poverty at every turn, all throughout my life. As a child I avidly read the annual almanacs, and I still remember looking through the figures for the median salaries of various professions. Teachers at that time apparently earned annual income in excess of thirty-five thousand dollars. Upon learning that information I was pointedly told that that wasn’t much money. And no, apparently it’s not much money by the standards of typical middle-class salaries, but it’s a goddamn lot compared to what a lot of people are earning, and any annual income I’ve acquired thus far.
I find that when people use phrases like “not much money,” they use it without a proper sense of proportion, an understanding of what that phrase means and what its use implies. When we discuss potential earnings or the outcome of a certain educational or career path, we tend to only start our assessment above a certain threshold. Thirty, forty, or fifty thousand dollars a year is conceived of as the low end of the spectrum for earnings, and salaries that approach and breach the poverty line are discounted altogether. That heavily skewed perspective allows us to talk about working artists as being in an ongoing struggle to keep their heads above water, even while they keep themselves in a strong enough financial position to support their art, often even traveling widely to create it, promote it, and sell it. That may not leave them with a heap of personal wealth at the end of the year, but describing anybody in such a position as struggling, or irresponsibly using the word “starving” trivializes the seriousness of genuine financial hardships in American society. Even saying that they make “not much money” is erroneous from the perspective of anyone on the bottom, and using that terminology belies one’s ability to genuinely empathize with the poor.
The same skewed perspective allows us to talk about the “worst-paying college degrees,” so as to suggest that people who acquire them and then actually obtain substantial employment in their field are paid badly. The Monster article lists the bottom ten disciplines, according to data from PayScale. The absolute lowest-paying item on that list is Child and Family Studies, which has a median starting salary of $29,600 and a mid-career median of $40,500. And if their data is to be taken seriously, the conclusion indeed ought to be that this is the “lowest-paying” degree, not the “worst-paying.” That may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s the difference between a quantitative observation of fact and a subjective statement as to the normative value of having a career that earns such a salary. Coming from his commonly skewed perspective, the author seems to be suggesting that those kinds of earnings will be part of a rather difficult life. But there are very many people who are craning their necks to look up at those sorts of earnings, and think that given their current situation, they could live quite comfortably in that range of incomes. I’m certainly one of them. And given that I have a degree that is not among the “worst-paying,” I’m tremendously embittered by the indications that by and large people in comfortable cross sections of American society are so poor at appreciating what they have.