Rich mom, poor mom in New York: a tale of two cities

Today’s New York Times has a really fascinating pair of articles that center on working women and how they balance their jobs and family lives. I’m pretty sure they weren’t meant to be read side by side, but doing so is an instructive exercise in compare-and-contrast.

Article one amounts to one of the rich-people-porn pieces the Times Style section so often specializes in. Much of it concerns how high-powered women executives are able to take abbreviated maternity leaves if they choose to do so, because they have abundant resources to help with child care, and enough clout on the job to work from home or maintain somewhat flexible schedules:

New parents with the financial means have solutions that others don’t when they have to answer to both a newborn and a boss. [Yahoo CEO] Ms. Mayer, for example, will be able to hire as many nannies and baby nurses as she needs. Ms. Sankar’s parents and in-laws are living in her home in Palo Alto, Calif.

When Ivanka Trump flew to Miami on business eight days after giving birth to her daughter, Arabella, last summer, she rode in her father’s plane, returning late that night.

Compare this scenario with the one sketched in Gina Bellafante’s piece about the plight of low-wage workers in New York City. The Times reports that NYC’s unemployment rate is ten percent, about two points higher than the rest of the country. Unlike the women profiled in the other article, many of the low-wage workers in this article don’t have even have paid sick days, and a bill to require paid sick leave has been stalled in the City Council.

In contrast to the other article, which offered such heartwarming vignettes as the one about Ivanka Trump being whisked away in daddy’s private jet in order to travel for work, we get a glimpse of the considerably less glamorous, and far more exhausting, commuting schedule of an immigrant working as a cleaning person:

Ms. Ordonez, a single mother who lives in the Bronx and came to the States from Ecuador in 1981, was already working full days as a home health aide in East Harlem when she accepted the 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. cleaning shift at Con Edison, embarking on a schedule and route — multiple subways and two-hour trips in the middle of the night — that allowed her no more than three hours of sleep.

Ms. Ordonez recently lost her job. Bellafante notes:

Because she is paid so little beyond minimum wage, she requires two full-time jobs to meet expenses that include a rent burden of $1,475 a month, on which she is now 60 days behind.

The article makes it clear just how much ground has been lost by low-wage workers over the past several decades, and the enormous difficulties they now have in making ends meet:

In the 1960s and ’70s, the report states, the earnings of someone working full time, year round at the minimum wage were enough to lift a family of three above the poverty line. The purchasing power of New York State’s minimum wage, which stands at $7.25 an hour, is now dramatically lower than it was 40 years ago. Today, a person earning the minimum and working year round would earn about $16,000, or 82 percent of the poverty threshold for a family of three.

We then move on to another outrageous vignette:

At J.F.K. last week, I met a security worker, Prince Jackson, employed by Air Serv (whose chairman, Frank A. Argenbright Jr., the report handily tells us, owns a $6.8 million compound in Sea Island, Ga.) as he ended a night shift. Part of his job involves the important work of monitoring a passenger-exit area in a Delta terminal, ensuring that no one breaks through into the arrivals area.

For this he is paid $8 an hour. His health plan’s co-pay is too high, so he never uses it, he told me. Mr. Jackson, who is galvanizing his co-workers and speaking at Tuesday’s event, said that were it not for his church’s food pantry, he could not afford groceries. His son is a junior at Clark University, and he would like to be able to send him some money occasionally so the young man could study more and work less. But he can’t.

I’ve written a couple of blog posts now blasting the Jason DeParle article that blamed single moms for inequality. And certainly, over the years the Times has published more than its share of dumb lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous pieces like the executive-moms-on-maternity-leave piece.

But credit where credit is due: Gina Bellafante really hit the nail on the head with today’s piece on low-wage workers. Several of the workers she profiles are single moms, but she doesn’t attempt to frog-march them to city hall for the marriage licenses, as if that would be their get-out-of-jail-free card out of a lifetime of poverty, near-poverty and constant economic struggle. Instead, she views them, correctly, through the lens of work, and sees that, first and foremost, what they need are jobs that pay them adequately and provide good benefits. And what we need to be asking ourselves is, why it is that such jobs were once so abundant, and why they aren’t now, and what we can do to bring them back.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee