Is it time for the middle class to turn its back on politicians?

Wage growth stopped in the 1980s

WASHINGTON D.C. - I recently had occasion to spend a week around the nurses who work at Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.  After a few days, I found myself pondering a conundrum that has pestered me for year:  Why does society so modestly reward the people who do the jobs we most appreciate?

The nurses at Miriam Hospital, male and female, were dazzlingly competent, courteous and resourceful. They all displayed, under conditions of duress, impressive levels of what social scientists now call “emotional intelligence.” Indeed they were geniuses on that scale.  

I’ve had epiphanies about the exceptionalism of people in service jobs many times before: about the nurses in the delivery rooms when my kids were born; about their teachers; about the cops who broke up a burglary at my house.

One appreciates people in these jobs so much not just when they are competent and not just because they are competent.  The gratitude comes, or ought to, because these people are taking care of the things that really matter – your health, your safety, your kids.

I’ve come to believe that people in jobs that matter so much are more competent than most of us. People complain about teachers, nurses and cops a lot; they don’t accumulate much wealth or status. But when I compare them to, say, car salesmen, bankers, lawyers and managers in big companies, they are superior.

But they are paid far less, of course. How come?

You could argue these jobs have existential rewards beyond money and that is why people take the jobs when they could earn more.

But the right answer, I suppose, involves the economics of what kinds of work generates profits. A nurse may save an investment bankers life, but if the investment bankers lands a giant client, his company will profit.

I thought of the nurses at Miriam Hospital again as I read an Op-ed piece in The New York Times by a retired cop trying to explain why police turned their backs in disrespect to Mayor Bill Di Blasio -- and the world.  Some reasons are specific to New York City and the mayor. This one wasn’t: “Most cops I know feel tired of being pushed to do more and more, and then even more.”

Teachers can relate. Once we asked them to handle the Three R’s (that would be reading, ‘riting and ‘rithematic for you whipper-snappers). Now they are expected to be social workers, sex educators, nutritionists and baby sitters and they are to be measured and graded like assembly line workers.

Nurses can relate. They are expected to navigate regulations generated by greedy insurance companies and litigation-wary lawyers, while emptying the bedpan.

People who had jobs like these in the four decades after World War II were part of great middle class that at least saw real wages and wealth grow steadily year after year.

That growth stopped in the 1980s and since then both income and wealth have actually shrunk for all Americans expect the top 10 percent.

So here’s a new conundrum: Why doesn’t more of the punished middle class turn its back on the politicians – and the world?

[Also by Dick Meyer: Congress still lacks diversity]

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