Dishes, Lawns, and Windows: A Living Wage Tale

“How much do I owe you for the lawn?” he asked me. “$20,” I answered flatly. “Twenty dollars? How long did it take you to mow it?” “A couple of hours.” “But that’s $10 an hour!” he exclaimed, visibly upset. I should have seen it coming. He was used to paying me minimum wage, which at the time was only $3.10 an hour. I probably should back up a couple of steps to give you some context. 

I am the youngest of seven. In our household, children were required to get a job by the age of thirteen. By “get a job” I mean a regular gig with a pay check; you know, the kind where they take taxes out and you start paying Social Security. We were required to get a job at thirteen, but they put us to work as soon as we could reach the sink. Dishes were the first duty. As the older kids went to work, their household chores were scaled back. My father decreed that 7% of the income earned had to go into the household finances. As the children got jobs they also took on the expense of buying their own clothes and paying for their own extra-curricular activities. At eighteen there was the unwritten expectation that the child would move out.[1] 

Job requirement aside, my folks decided I needed a business when I was eleven. Well, they decided that my brother Timothy and I should have a business (in part probably because he was thirteen and they might not have been sure someone would hire him). They had life-long friends whose sons had a lawn mowing enterprise. The dad had built their house on inherited land and worked for Ma Bell when she was the only telephone company in the country. He was pulling in union wages with limited overhead and only two kids in the center of the Ozarks in 1976. They had the full-sized pickup truck with a nice trailer to pull their lawn tractors, mowers, trimmers, and blowers to all the manicured graveyards where the boys worked hard to keep the grounds pristine. 

On that fateful day, mom and dad loaded Tim and I into the back seat of the two-door family Pinto (you remember, the model with the hatchback and exploding gas tank) and drove us to the local Western Auto three miles from home. There they purchased a lawn mower and a gas can for $75. After paying the cashier, they informed us that we would be paying them back with the proceeds from our fledgling business. Then they got back into the Pinto and drove away. Tim and I pushed the mower home; all three miles, mostly uphill. Mom had worked her contacts at the hospital and lined up several yards for us. They were not pristine graveyards. They were overgrown hippie pads owned by local slum lords. I slung more rocks, doggie doo, and beer bottle glass than I did grass pushing that mower through the weeds. What can I say; it built character and a distinct distaste for mowing lawns.[2] 

In my thirteenth summer, the traditional time when Larum children go a job getting, it was clear that my father’s time on this earth was short. He forbad my departure to the workforce and kept me home for my last summer of training under his wise tutelage. His lessons that summer have stood the test of time and are with me still. During one particularly poignant and prophetic conversation, he counseled me on earning potential and job security. “You know son,” he said, “there are a couple of fields you would do well to get into. One of them is accounting. The world will always need accountants and if you were one, you could always find work. The other is this new industry involving computers. Two of your brothers are involved in it now and I think it’s going to be big. If you go for accounting or computers, you’ll be set.” The year was 1978. Computers were going to be big business. And the world still needs accountants. I loved my dad and trusted his advice. So when the time came for me to get my first local job, I went to work as a dish washer at the age of fourteen. I would work in restaurants for the next seven years.[3] 

And so it was that at the tender age of fifteen, my boss in the Cook’s Back Door Restaurant asked me to mow his yard. My mower was broken, I informed him (see footnote 2) and even if it wasn’t, I had no means of transporting it to his house (see footnote 1). No bother, he told me, I could use his. I probably should have given him a break in the price for using his equipment. But I didn’t think of it at the time. Besides, his lawn was of a size that I charged $20 for. My price was my price. It wasn’t my fault that all he was obligated to pay me as a dish washer in his restaurant was $3.10 an hour. 

“Twenty dollars?…But that’s $10 an hour!” I probably should have negotiated. Or at least I should have explained the difference between washing dishes and mowing lawns. I like washing dishes and was willing to do it for $3.10 an hour. As a matter of fact, I was thankful to have the job at all. But I didn’t like grass cutting, with my mower or anyone else’s. So, it cost more to get me to do it. Besides, he came to me for the service. I didn’t go to him looking for lawn work. In any event, I should have been a bit more humble. Instead, I upped the ante. “You should be glad you didn’t ask me to wash your windows,” I said, a bit smugly. “I charge $35 an hour for that.” I probably should back up a couple of steps and explain. 

By the time I was fourteen, the family rules were out the window. 7% of the income to the family fund? No, that wouldn’t cut it anymore. Dad was dead. Only my mother, my brother Timothy, and I were left at home. Mom needed help keeping a roof over our heads. Room and board was set at $100 a month (about $283 in today’s money). Tim went to work as a cook in a local restaurant. I got a gig with a state CEDA program as a cast member in a sing-and-dance troop. In essence, this meant that when mom set rent at $100 a month in my fourteenth summer, I got a job out of town and sent most of my earnings home. When I returned from my travels ten weeks later, I got a post as a dishwasher in the kitchen my brother was working in. 

That same summer, I made friends with some folks who had a window cleaning business. They trained me in the basic techniques, how to find jobs, and how to price them out. And when they moved, they gifted me with some accounts and equipment. On my best day doing windows, I cleared $70 in two hours. It’s where I got the figure that I shot at my boss when he criticized me for my lawn prices. He paid the fee, but promised not to use me in that capacity again. I must admit I was relieved. 

My earnings in the restaurant that year (1980) amounted to $1,389. Even at fifteen I knew I couldn’t live on that wage. These earnings were supplemented by window cleaning, but I was in school full time and windows are hard to do in the winter. I fell in love with restaurant work and within seven years made my way into a managerial post. My last year as a manager, I made $9,340. It wasn’t great, but it was a site better than minimum wage, which was still sitting at $3.10/hour. I had to do better. I opted to learn a trade. 

After a short stint as a carpenter’s helper (a post I took at a wage loss from where I was in order to learn a new skill), I was hired by a commercial office furnishings installation outfit. My first year as a semi-skilled laborer garnered me $19,603. This amounts to fourteen times the earning power that I had as a minimum wage worker in 1980. And I wasn’t even working for a union shop. 

After plying my newfound trade for nearly three years, I got a business offer from a colleague in the industry. “Move down and run the business with me,” he asked. The entrepreneurial days of my youth came back to me and I said yes. I uprooted my young family and moved to uncertain waters full of promise and potential problems. My first full year of self-employment (1990), I earned $29,353. It would take me another eight years to nearly double that. At $56,000 per year, I was the sole provider for a family of seven: myself, my wife, and our first five children. 

What is the moral of this story? Well, recent news and protests would have us believe that minimum wage workers are a static class of American citizens who are trying to raise their families on the meager wage of $7.25/hour. This policy, we are told, causes economic inequality and must be remedied by an increase of the minimum wage to a “living wage” of $15/hour or no one gets a Big Mac. Seriously? This wage only gets you out of poverty level if your family size is five or less.[4] No, I’m not arguing for a higher minimum wage or smaller families. I’m simply highlighting the absurdity of it. When did flipping burgers become a job choice invested with the guarantee that one could provide for an entire family? Answer: never. 

The reality of economy is that people value labor and products differently. Were I to tell you that a physician and a plumber should make the same hourly wage, you would call me crazy. And yet, our government seems intent on specifying by law what the doctor can charge and ultimately what the plumber must be paid. And this philosophy is predicated on the ideal that capitalism and enterprise are intrinsically exploitative and that any laborer, regardless of their skill or post, should be paid at least enough to support a family of six and not be considered poor in America. Someone needs to take their mouth off the crack pipe! 

Neither the poor nor minimum wage earners are a static group in our country. Minimum wage jobs are generally entry level, low-skilled positions. They are not intended (and neither can they sustain) the economically untenable “living wages” being demanded. Rest assured that if the trend continues and the socialist ideals of labor become law for the Golden Arches and their like, folks in America will eventually go south of the border for real to get their fast food.

[1] To any of my siblings who may be reading this, bear in mind that these are my recollections. You’ll probably have a more fleshed out version. Just remember, I’m the baby – gotta love me!

[2] By the time I turned 15, I had perfected the knack of ripping off the top of the mower with just two good pulls of the start rope, whereupon my step-dad would bring out his riding mower and cut our half-acre lot. He wouldn’t let me use his mower because it didn’t have brakes and he thought it unsafe for a teenager like me.

[3] I’ve since spent the better part of my adult life in business trying to understand accounting and computers. I should have listened to my father!

[4] According to US Poverty Guidelines published by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Of course, what goes for poverty in the US would qualify as wealth in a good portion of the planet.


2 thoughts on “Dishes, Lawns, and Windows: A Living Wage Tale

  1. omg what a bad childhood I had no idea….. who the heck were your parents ?

    nice piece Nick…..brought back some memories peace and love Jim R

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