One of the things I’ve noticed on occasion is the use by various politicians of the pay scales in one part of the country to demonstrate how “overpaid” various people are. It’s easy to point to someone in New York City and say “Hey, look at how much money they make!” and whip up the outrage somewhere like South Carolina. From their standpoint, it is a lot of money. Of course, that’s not the real story, and it’s one I do have a lot of personal experience with. While it may seem that people in one area make more, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the same standard of living.
When I left the military, I interviewed for a number of jobs. I turned down one offer in a suburb of DC, because of the pay. A job I did take shortly thereafter in upstate NY paid about a thousand dollars a year less than the job I’d turned down. Was I that desperate or nuts? Not really. As I explained to a relative of mine who was shocked that I’d turned down the first job, it was for a straight-up economic reason. I couldn’t afford to live in the DC area on the salary that was offered. I could afford to live on the salary in upstate NY.
The pay that in upstate NY enabled me to have a decent place to live, pay my bills, feed myself, and leave some money left over for savings and hobbies, would have in the DC region meant being able to pay to live in an efficiency apartment in a not very nice area and drive to work. I’d have had to find a second job to afford food and pay my bills. That’s something that catches people by surprise, if they’re not aware of it. Even when you are, it can still catch you. A friend of mine received a transfer from DC to San Francisco. He called me a few weeks after the transfer, and told me “You know how we thought DC was expensive? It’s cheap compared to San Francisco!”
I’ve thought back to that over the past few months, as I watch various conservative groups point to public employees or others, particularly union members, as being overpaid. The cry goes up about how much more they make, and it resonates with people who aren’t aware – or don’t care – about the differences in costs between various areas. After all, if you’re living in rural Tennessee, $40,000 a year may sound like a good salary. It isn’t if you’re living in New York City. It’s actually the equivalent of making less than $20,000. How do I know that? I looked. You see, a while ago I turned down a job offer that would have meant moving there. It was a really interesting opportunity, and a pay raise of almost $10,000 a year. The problem? It was really a pay cut. A similar apartment to the one I have here would cost me three to four times as much. I don’t even want to think of what my auto insurance would be. That’s in addition to the other expenses, and it would mean going from “doing alright” to “scraping by.”
It’s easy to use the “people are overpaid” line if you’re using a figure for a high-cost area. It works if you’re talking to people in an area where the cost of living isn’t as high. Unless you look at it in context, it can sound “high.” But when you do, it turns out that they’re not “overpaid.” In fact, they’re often underpaid.