The Trap

THE TRAP….In The Trap, Daniel Brook argues that we have a cruel new problem in America: do-gooder jobs at nonprofits don’t pay enough to support a middle-class lifestyle, and this is forcing young college grads into a hideous choice between living frugally or else taking a corporate job.

Now, I admit it: this doesn’t strike me as anything either especially new or especially hideous, and as I was reading Doron Taussig’s review of The Trap in the October issue of the Monthly, a few other things came to mind as well. When I read about the 27-year-old activist making $35,000 per year fighting global sex trafficking, for example, I thought: Hey, that’s about what I made (adjusted for inflation) back when I was that age. And I was working at an aggressively for-profit enterprise at the time. It also occurred to me that the median income for 25-34 year olds is $27,000, which means that our activist friend isn’t really doing all that badly, even if she does live in New York City. And anywhere else she’d be doing more than OK. And finally, I got pretty annoyed by passages like this: “Today, many young people are interested in public service….But when it comes time to pay the bills, we go into the corporate world, enduring long, meaningless hours, and often cognitive dissonance, because it’s the only sector of the economy that can afford to pay enough for what was formerly considered a middle-class life.”

Call me hypersensitive, but up until a few years ago I spent my entire life working in the “corporate world.” And guess what? I didn’t think my hours there were long and meaningless! In fact, I thought it was pretty respectable and rewarding work. If you want to work for a nonprofit, that’s great, but can we please knock off the flower-child hyperventilating about the alternatives all amounting to “selling out”?

So far, though, I’m just kvetching — and I know you guys are going to ream me for it in comments. I’m sure I deserve it for this Scrooge-like attitude. What’s more, I’ll bet Brook anticipated exactly this reaction from a lot of people. But then I got to this part of the review:

Comparisons to previous decades are also complicated by the fact that the number of Americans employed by nonprofits doubled between 1977 and 2001, a much faster growth rate than both the government and for-profit sectors, according to the research group Independent Sector.

Huh? Doesn’t this blow apart the entire premise of the book? If the nonprofit sector is growing faster than either the government or corporate sector, that must mean that lots of people are finding it perfectly possible to work for them. It might very well require a sacrifice of some kind (either from you or your spouse), but apparently an awful lot of people are finding that sacrifice both possible and worthwhile.

So what’s the problem? I don’t doubt that there’s a subculture of Ivy League graduates living in big cities who simply aren’t willing to work for less than a six-figure salary, but just how widespread can The Trap really be if the nonprofit sector is doing so handsomely? Color me unconvinced.

On the other hand, let me say that I agree completely with Brook about one thing: it’s a crime that we don’t have universal healthcare in America, and I hope we manage to change that sometime soon. My guess is that it would help only slightly with the problem he’s writing about, but it would still be a great idea.