The Wages of Words
I recently had the strange fortune, born of necessity, to take a small sip from the public welfare trough. As my income and savings sank frightfully low, this January I signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. I thus joined America’s burgeoning forty-six-million-plus food stamp rolls, which have become an all-too-ignored economic indicator and an election-year lightning rod.
I’m part of what I call the privileged poor: the frayed white-collar class, growing by the year, of college-educated career professionals who are barely getting by, if at all. I make about $15,000 a year, sometimes less, working full time as a freelance writer, editor, and journalist. Everywhere around me (food, coffee, rent, public transit, the occasional bar drink) the numbers after the dollar signs go up—except for my income.
This “wasn’t supposed to happen.” I’m a mid-career award-winning journalist and author. But millions of Americans who have endured generations of poverty might well say, “Welcome to the club” (I should know: I grew up on food stamps and free lunch, thanks to Head Start). Roughly one in six Americans—one in five children—does not have reliable access to food. According to USA Today, citing Census data, nearly half the country is poor or low-income. Even as unemployment eases in some places (yet still hovers around 15 percent if you include folks who’ve given up looking or are stuck in unwanted part-time jobs), the vast underbelly of America is economically and nutritionally underfed.
Meanwhile, the 46.3 million of us who supposedly make Barack Obama the “food stamp President”—even though the rolls and benefit rates shot up more sharply under George W. Bush—have joined immigrants among the top ranks of Republican scapegoats.
Following a piece I wrote about “joining food stamp nation” for Salon.com—a 1,600-word essay for which, ironically, I was offered a whopping $150, though I pushed them to $250—I was treated to a predictable blizzard of judgment by hundreds of commenters. Why didn’t this “loser,” one asked, get a real job like everyone else? How did I have the audacity to be a “progressive journalist” and then ask for public assistance? How dare I purchase organic chicken and farmer’s market vegetables, not to mention the occasional cigarette (I know I shouldn’t) and then dip into the federal treasury?
One distressed commenter wrote: “Organic chicken? Farmers’ market vegetables? I feel like you’re not the kind of person food stamps were meant to help. Well, enjoy your premium food on my tax dollar.” As if they’re not my tax dollars, too. As if food stamp money disappears in my belly—in fact, these dollars directly stimulate economic activity.
Here’s another: “Christopher Cook needs a reality check: If he’s making so little from freelancing that he qualifies for food stamps, then he should get a different job. There’s absolutely no reason why taxpayers should be paying for an able-bodied forty-four-year-old’s food (and apparently freeing up enough of his resources that he can afford cigarettes) when he could be earning a paycheck in another field.”
These comments, and many others, expressed a profound disdain for the right of low-income people to make choices about how they spend their public assistance (for the record, the organic chicken cost $3.50).
Of course, public assistance has always carried the puritanical stink of stigmatization. As Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward explained in their classic book Regulating the Poor, guilt and shaming have long been intentional features of public aid—along with various forms of coerced labor and invasive monitoring—dating back to England’s poor laws of the seventeenth century to today’s much-demonized welfare system in America.
It’s not hard to feel like a failure in America today. In many respects, the whole country, rich and powerful as it is, represents an economic failure: a “free market” capitalist experiment run amok, with ever-widening gaps between rich and poor; an entire economy based on financial privatization and polarization.
In my case, which is emblematic of both the larger economy and the withering profession of journalism, the inflation-adjusted wages of my words have hardly remained flat. In fact, they have gone down.
Numerous publications in the alternative media, and on the fringes of the mainstream, still offer ten to twenty cents per word—about the same rates that were considered low when I broke into magazine writing around 1994. This means about $300 for an in-depth feature article, which can easily take one or two weeks of hard work—sometimes dozens of interviews, background reading, research, fact checking, and reporting.
Now run an inflation calculator: that same $300 is today worth $197.65. Divide that by forty hours, a conservative amount of time to research, report, and write (and rewrite and deal with edits and fact-checking, all of which are essential but go uncompensated) such an article: $4.94 an hour.
The natural response to this, which I’ve heard from friends and critics alike, is to say, “Well, obviously you need a career change!” Or, “You should get a regular job and do this on the side.” Certainly, I’ve broadened my portfolio, taking on more copyediting and communications consulting work, a little teaching here and there—still not enough for me to venture north of the poverty line.
Apart from my own case, the problem is this: Are we going to let the political economy of the Internet age turn professional journalism and writing into a “hobby”? Are we really ready for the cultural and political consequences of letting the “fourth estate”—and its critical progressive wing—crumble to the ground?
You know the larger story: mass layoffs at newspapers across the country, beginning in the 1980s and intensifying in the late 1990s through today; big media mergers abetted by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department; and a whole Internet-propelled economy and culture of “free content.” Perhaps most infamously, the Huffington Post, acquired by media giant AOL for $315 million in February 2011, pays little to nothing for most of its bloggers, who generate countless “clicks” on the website, meaning more advertising revenue for the corporation.
Shortly after AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post, Tim Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “AOL and the Huffington Post simply recapitulate in the new media many of the worst abuses of the old economy’s industrial capitalism: the sweatshop, the speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery, and exploitation for the workers.”
Last August, the National Writers Union and the Newspaper Guild launched a “Pay the Writer!” campaign “aimed at setting a standard for a fair pay scale for online journalists.” Two months later, in October, they ended their boycott and “online picket” of Huffington Post, with no tangible victory in sight.
Unless we are ready as a society to give up on the idea of serious professional journalism and well-crafted writing—real labor that even many on the left seem to undervalue—we will need to recommit ourselves to paying a living wage for the written word. Until then, for me and many writers and other “cultural workers” like artists and musicians, food stamps are a tiny subsidy for producing undercompensated “content.”
And as long as people keep expecting free clicks on my writing labor, I may need to keep asking for a little free lunch.
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author who has written frequently on welfare, labor, and related topics for The Progressive. He got paid $1,000 for this article. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The Economist, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He is the author of “Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.” He can be reached through www.christopherdcook.com.
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