ONE of the most impolite questions, at least for those who travel in polite circles, has always been, "How much do you earn?" Even among good friends the subject usually remains out of bounds. Yet who can fail to be fascinated by the who-makes-what-salary lists periodically compiled by nosy journalists? From exorbitantly paid athletes to underpaid social workers, most lists have something to amaze - or outrage - readers.
This week a Business Week cover story on "Executive Pay" reports on a rarefied world where salaries for the top ten earners range from $24 million to $127 million. "Reform is coming," the cover promises, "but you wouldn't know it." Among the 730 executives featured in the magazine's list, 64 percent earned more than $1 million last year.
It may be impolite to ask if any executive is really worth $127 million. Yet the question seems particularly appropriate today as another, far more modest salary list is made public - that of a nearly invisible group: child-care workers. In contrast to the stratospheric salaries and perks given to CEOs, remuneration for those caring for the next generation hovers in the basement.
According to a new survey compiled by the Child Care Employee Project in Oakland, Calif., wages for the lowest-paid workers in the field, assistant teachers in preschool centers, have actually declined in the past four years. They now average $5.08 an hour, down from $5.16 in 1988, for an annual total of $8,890. Salaries for the highest-paid child-care teachers have improved slightly, from $8.19 an hour in 1988 to $8.85 an hour in 1992, but even these average only about $15,500 a year. Considering that m ost child-care teachers in the higher-paid group have college training in early childhood education, this hardly counts as a winning return on their college investment.
In a field where 98 percent of the workers are women, part of these low wages can be explained by society's tendency to undervalue women's work in general. In addition, a stereotype persists that caring for children is baby-sitting and not really "work" in the conventional sense. Given that widespread attitude, perhaps it isn't surprising that child-care employees earn less than parking-lot attendants and zoo keepers.
As one way of calling attention to these poverty-level wages, the Oakland-based Worthy Wage Coalition has designated today as its second annual Worthy Wage Day. In child-care centers and government centers across the country, children and child-care providers are staging rallies and parades, trying to promote better economic support for child-care teachers.
The coalition would like to achieve a minimum average wage of $10 an hour for child-care providers. It would also like to see comprehensive health insurance for all child-care employees by 1995. Less than a third now have fully paid health coverage.
As one way of finding new financing options that will ensure high quality care, the coalition has joined with nearly 100 advocacy groups in asking President Clinton to create a commission on the economics of child care.
Gross inequities in salaries will always exist. But as Worthy Wage Day illustrates, it is not enough simply to pat child-care workers on the back and praise them for being "good with kids." Compliments won't buy groceries or pay the rent.
The number-crunchers at Business Week have calculated that the average CEO of a large corporation received total pay of nearly $3.5 million last year. That represents a 42 percent increase over the previous year. What a contrast to the 1.5 percent decrease in wages for the lowest-paid child care assistants during the past four years, and to the modest 8 percent increase for the highest-paid child-care teachers.
Consider this: At an average of $3.5 million, a top executive earns 388 times more than a $9,000-a-year child-care worker.
Such comparisons are too overwhelming not to have significance. In a culture that keeps score with money, salaries have to be read as an indicator of how people are valued. Given the gigantic spread between top and bottom, the question poses itself: Are chief executives contributing almost 400 times as much to the public good as child-care givers? Or, to put it another way: Is taking care of children only one-quarter of one percent as important, as necessary, as the work a CEO may do?