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Instead of bemoaning wealth work, make it better

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Last month we noted that in our current Gilded Age of inequality, catering to the wealthy—manicuring them, massaging them, feeding them, gardening for them—has become one of the fastest-growing sources of work in America’s “superstar” metro areas and resort towns.

For example, the number of manicurists and pedicurists doubled between 2010 and 2017, while the number of fitness trainers and dog walkers grew by two and three times the rate of the overall employment base, respectively.

Job growth in selected wealth work occupations

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Which is a sign of our times. No wonder the resulting Twitter traffic from our piece made clear that many readers were concerned that some three million workers in many of America’s richest cities now earn a living by helping the well-off walk their dogs, clean their houses, cook their dinners, and stay fit.

With that said, a few commenters seemed to feel that the whole concept of “wealth work” denigrated a particular class of low-income service workers. Michael Needham, Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) chief of staff, for example, was among those who were bemused about the stature of jobs in the emerging “wealth worker” occupational sector:

Michael Needham tweet

From that exploded a flurry of  a Twitter debate about the dignity of wealth work—or what The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson called today’s “servant economy”—and whether such jobs are more or less important than other kinds of work.

So what’s our view? On the question of value, we would first note that every job creates value in the economy and yields some benefit to the individual who holds it. It is also important to observe that as manufacturing has declined, service jobs have become a crucial source of work for people without a college degree. Many face-to-face, “interpersonal” service and health jobs are likely to continue proliferating even as automation and artificial intelligence raise questions about the permanence of many other jobs. That suggests wealth work is likely to endure.

Beyond that, though, our main thought about the value and dignity of wealth work is that no one should disrespect the hard-toiling people who fill these roles.

What’s more, people should be focused on the fact that the quality of these jobs could be made much better for workers.

Indeed, policies to improve the well-being and living standards of people holding wealth work jobs are perhaps the best way to affirm the dignity of these occupations. And on multiple fronts, these jobs could be made a lot better.

Wealth work pays badly, for example—just under $36,000 a year in 2017. However, policymakers could improve on that by supplementing low-wage workers’ pay by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and establishing a fully refundable child tax credit. Likewise, policymakers could follow the lead of western states like California, Nevada, and Washington and eliminate the lower “tipped minimum wage” that massage therapists, cosmetologists, and other workers are forced to rely on.

Wealth work can involve irregular work hours, erratic scheduling, and income volatility, as well. Given that, more states should emulate Oregon, as well as municipalities like San Jose, Calif., which have passed “fair workweek” laws protecting the earnings of hourly workers.

Wealth work jobs frequently lack employer-provided health care, meanwhile. Specifically, less than 44% of people in wealth work occupations had access to such benefits in 2017, compared to over 67% of U.S. workers as a whole. Policymakers could improve these jobs if they stopped attempting to sabotage the Affordable Care Act’s coverage provisions, and expanded Medicaid in the 14 states that haven’t done so—a move that would provide health-care access to some 2.5 million more low-income Americans.

Finally, wealth work often lacks retirement and paid-leave benefits. As with health care, many workers in these occupations lack access to employer-provided retirement accounts like 401(k)s, as well as paid time off. States could help here by following the lead of Oregon, California, and four others in developing state-run automatic IRAs, which give retirement payroll deductions to all workers whose employers do not offer retirement plans. More states, and—where necessary—municipalities should also pass laws providing paid sick, personal, and family and medical leave to workers. Policymakers should also pursue options to support workers in specific domains of the wealth economy, such as the “Uber-for-X” economy, where wealth work is mediated by online marketplaces for driving, delivery, and other on-demand services. For example, policymakers could leverage models like portable benefits to help enhance the economic security of gig-economy and other contingent workers.

Of course, these suggestions are far from exhaustive. Policymakers should also consider additional steps like enhancing worker bargaining power and protecting workers from abuse and harassment, among others. Also helpful would be creating more pathways to new careers for workers through efforts like publicly funded lifelong learning accounts for low-wage workers, or a universal basic adjustment benefit.

In sum, it’s not just the nature of the work itself, but how it’s regulated by society that makes wealth work ambiguous—and troubling. Since wealth work is likely with us for the duration, we ought to see if we can make it better, rather than bemoaning its existence.

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